Feb. 24, 2015 6:46 p.m. ET
‘I do not believe that the president loves America,” former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said last week. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me.”
If love for Rudy Giuliani were a true test of love for this country, a rapidly declining share of Americans would pass. Nonetheless, in the least artful and most irresponsible way possible, Mr. Giuliani managed to raise a genuinely significant question: What does it mean to love one’s country?
This much is clear: It doesn’t mean never criticizing one’s country. We all know the ending of U.S. naval hero Stephen Decatur ’s famous toast in 1816: “Our country, right or wrong.” But we often overlook the obvious: Decatur was acknowledging that his beloved country from time to time might be in the wrong. In the 1870s, Sen. Carl Schurz spelled out the full meaning of Decatur’s words: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” To set one’s country right, one must state the wrong—and then act to correct it.
As is often the case, Edmund Burke said it best: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” To the extent that our country’s beauty is flawed, we strengthen that love by working to remove its blemishes.
Love of country does require partiality, however. It would be more than odd for parents to say that they love their children but love their neighbor’s children just as much. Either they are not telling the truth, or the emotion they feel for their children is not love as ordinarily understood. In the same way, we do not love our country if we care about it neither more nor less than other countries.
It is in this context that the running debate about American “exceptionalism” should be placed. If our country doesn’t stand above others, the proponents of the exceptionalist thesis ask, then how can we set it above others in our affections?
But transpose this seemingly plausible claim to the family. Does this special love we feel for our own children depend on their superiority to other children? Must they be smarter, better looking, more accomplished, or of better character than others for us to love them above all others?
Of course not. We love them as we do because they are ours. We have a unique bond with them. In most cases they are literally flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. When children are adopted, parents declare their intention to create through commitment the bonds of nature.
To be sure, it is hard to prevent love from shading over into a kind of boastfulness. Parents brag about their children—pardonably, at least within limits. Citizens inevitably move from love of country because it is their own to assertions of national superiority. Sometimes these claims are warranted. But beyond their due bounds, they become arrogant and dangerous.
In the Bible, God warns his chosen people through the prophet Amos not to expect special treatment: “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt; but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” By the same token, no one is exempt from judgment—or punishment. Israel surely was not.
The Hebrew prophets are the classic examples of what the political theorist Michael Walzer calls “connected criticism.” This is criticism from inside a tradition, not outside, moved not by malice but by special affection for the object of criticism. Its objective is Burke’s: to make a lovely country lovelier still. In that spirit, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to Americans not to live up to others’ standards, but to their own, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and nourished by the Bible. In that same spirit, on the first day of his presidency, Bill Clinton declared his conviction that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
Presidents cannot be prophets. If they err, it must be on their country’s side. Still, America’s leaders on occasion have underscored the country’s misdeeds. Five years after Congress passed a bill declaring the treatment of Japanese during World War II to have been a “fundamental injustice,” President Clinton in 1993 issued a formal apology on behalf of the American people. That act did not weaken the country; it strengthened it.
And let us not forget: As the Civil War moved toward its conclusion, America’s greatest president delivered America’s greatest speech, daring to ask whether that bloody fratricidal struggle represented God’s judgment on our country—North and South alike—for the sin of slavery. In so doing, President Lincoln set in motion a process that, however delayed, eventually made America a fairer and stronger nation.
So let us consign Rudy Giuliani’s remarks to their richly deserved oblivion and get on with the serious business of improving our country.