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The difference between patriotism, nationalism

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If you are like me, you love a patriotic parade and concert. I continue to get a lump in my throat and sometimes a tear in my eye when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner and see the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze. I thank God I was fortunate to have been born in the United States.

Unfortunately, in our nation’s current divisive political climate, we have lost the distinct difference between the often used terms nationalism and patriotism.

Patriotism is not just a simple love for one’s country but also includes the ability to see its flaws and defects. Being constructively critical toward government is one expression of patriotism.

Nationalism has been referred to as patriotism on steroids. It can approach the level of a form of idolatry where the worship of both God and nation are woven into the same fabric and one is unable to tell one from the other.

Such a form of nationalism can be seen most fully when a pastor of a large evangelical church once called anyone who criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq a traitor.

There is a presumption that our nation is “exceptional” or “called out by God.” This concept, taken to its extreme, becomes a dangerous form of nationalism that gives us permission to do almost anything with the assumption of innocence and God’s blessing.

On the other hand, patriotism calls us to a higher ethic. Our nation and its founding is a gift from God and established with ideals of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, with a system of justice for all. Somewhere I read the following statement, “When patriots wave the flag, they are fully aware that it symbolizes and represents wonderful ideals but not every decision and action our government makes. When nationalists wave the flag, they are using it as an idol to sanctify whatever America does.”

From my perspective, patriotism takes pride in its nation’s history but its focus is on the nation’s future. It works for and toward the nation’s achievement of its Founding Fathers’ ideals. Whereas nationalism tends to look to the past, to defend past policies and events and deems all that the nation has done was good and righteous regardless of morality.

Recently, our president has openly boasted that he is a “nationalist.” He is apparently not aware of the ugly and dangerous history of this term.

As a student of history, I want to share with you, the readers, a choice slice of German nationalist propaganda spoken by Hermann Goring, chief of Nazi propaganda in Hitler’s Third Reich: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of its leader…tell them they are being attacked, they are in danger. Then denounce the peacemakers for the lack of their patriotism and for exposing the nation to danger. This works the same way in any nation, even a democracy.”

Does this sound familiar?

As a “caravan” of desperate souls, fleeing crushing poverty and drug gang violence, our president has chosen to use the strategy of Hermann Goring, a “nationalist.”

We are being attacked, we are being invaded. We are in danger. The sky is falling. Fear for your lives.

For me, I choose patriotism and the truth over nationalism, fear and lies.

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.