Graduates: Be True Patriots
The following is an adaptation of an address to Villanova University’s class of 2017.
In preparing for today, I was reminded that this beautiful campus lies halfway between two of the most important sites in American history: Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, and Valley Forge, where George Washington’s troops spent a long winter during the Revolutionary War.
It occurred to me that the two sites are bound together by a powerful idea that matters as much today as it did in the 1770s. The idea can be summed up in a single word. The trouble is, it’s perhaps the most abused, exploited and misunderstood word in the English language. As a country, when we allow this word to be disconnected from Independence Hall and Valley Forge, we lose our way.
The word I’m referring to is “patriotism.”
Some people think patriotism means unconditional support for government policies: “My country, right or wrong.” Or they think patriotism means nationalism that pits “us” versus “them.” Or that it requires us to buy American, or that it’s about passing tax cuts and spending more on defense.
But real patriotism isn’t mindless, it isn’t divisive, and it isn’t about our pocketbooks. Patriotism is about how we respond when our founding values are tested.
After I arrived on campus today, I stopped into the St. Thomas of Villanova Monastery to see one of its prized possessions: the sister bell to the famous Liberty Bell. Like the Liberty Bell, this bell hung in Independence Hall on July 4, 1776 -- and it remained there for more than 50 years.
It was eventually sold to a nearby church -- St. Augustine’s. But in 1844, anti-Catholic rioters set fire to the church. The rioters considered Catholics a threat to America, and they wanted to bar them from entering the country. (They managed to destroy the church, but not the bell. The Augustinians saved it, repaired it, and sent it here for safekeeping.)
Although the bell is now retired, it’s much more than a relic from Independence Hall or a remnant of anti-Catholic bigotry. It is a living reminder that the struggle to defend our founding values never ends.
In 1928, when the Democratic Party nominated a Catholic, Al Smith, for president, many Protestants strongly opposed him on religious grounds. They believed that Catholics were not really Americans -- and that Smith would take his orders from Rome. It was the new version of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs that used to hang in store windows and appear in job listings.
When I entered college in 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for president -- and many Americans still thought Catholics less than fully American, and unfit for the presidency. Today, if you replace the word “Catholics” with “Muslims,” the sentence is no less true.
During my time as mayor of New York City, I saw that discrimination firsthand. When a local developer proposed building a mosque near the World Trade Center, the media whipped people into a frenzy. Polls showed that a majority of Americans in both parties opposed the new mosque. They considered it an unpatriotic insult to those killed in the attacks of Sept. 11. They wanted me to stop the new mosque from going forward, but they could not have been more wrong.
Muslims were among those murdered on Sept. 11. Muslims fight and die for our nation. Muslims serve in our communities. But really, all that matters is this: Muslims are Americans who are just as free to practice their faith as anyone else. And discriminating against them is just as un-American and un-patriotic as discriminating against Catholics or anyone else.
When we don’t stand up for the rights of others, eventually we pay the price ourselves. Patriotism requires ethics. And ethics are at the heart of America’s power and purpose. Prejudice against other groups will probably always be with us. And far too often in our history, we have tolerated it -- and even legislated it.
But the reason America grew into such a great country is that, in times of crisis, the values that inspired our Declaration of Independence have been our North Star. In every generation, men and women have understood that putting America first means putting American values first. That, I believe, lies at the heart of patriotism.
When someone tells you that patriotism simply means love of country, remember this:
The nativists who burned down St. Augustine’s, the Klan that burned crosses in black communities, and the protesters who tried to block the construction of a mosque all loved America, and all acted in her name.
But they were not acting as true patriots, because they all made a crucial mistake. They feared that the values that gave rise to America -- liberty, equality, openness, tolerance -- would weaken us, instead of understanding that they make us stronger.
That understanding isn’t something we should expect people to come by naturally. It’s something that must be taught in schools. When I was growing up, I was taught to love this country not because America was infallible, but because We the People were always working toward perfection. The idea that we are engaged in a constant struggle for a “more perfect union” is what makes America an exceptional nation.
It’s imperative that we pass this idea from generation to generation. And yet today, there is a terrible lack of civic education in our schools. Civic education teaches us about the history behind our values, what it means to be a citizen in our democracy, and what obligations that imposes on us.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.” Today, it is easier than ever to be well-informed -- and, at the same time, harder than ever. By following only liberal or conservative news outlets, or by getting trapped in social media’s echo chamber, we become less able to discern fact from spin, truth from lies. And we become less willing to listen to anyone who challenges our beliefs.
The best protection we have against this kind of political segregation is to ensure that we all share a common understanding of our civic values. When we don’t, we are more likely to nominate and elect people who don’t respect those values, and the institutions that protect our rights.
It’s easy to take our rights for granted. But remember: America is an experiment, an experiment in democracy and multiculturalism. It’s an experiment that a free people will remain informed, debate civilly, and choose leaders who respect the checks and balances of the Constitution. And if they do not, the Constitution gives us the authority to hold them accountable for their actions, to ensure that no man or woman -- no matter how powerful -- is above the law.
This great American experiment has no guaranteed outcomes. Every generation tests it, and every generation is tested. Your responsibility -- your test -- is to preserve the experiment, and renew it for the next generation. This is no small task, but I believe it starts with a small step that each of you can take in your communities: demanding that your local schools do more to teach what it means to be a citizen and a patriot.
But that is not all. To take the full measure of patriotism, we must honor not only the ideals that inspired statesmen at Independence Hall, but also the sacrifices that soldiers made at Valley Forge.
In the winter of 1777-78, some 2,500 soldiers died from disease and starvation at Valley Forge. Those who survived did so shivering and hungry, often without winter clothing, blankets or shoes. The vast majority were in their early twenties, or younger. Many were immigrants. The sacrifices those young men and women made at Valley Forge, the courage they showed and the unity they maintained preserved hope for a nation of united states. They are a reminder that age is no barrier to commitment and sacrifice when a principle is worth fighting for.
Today, patriotism doesn’t require us to endure starvation or extreme deprivation. But it does require us to have the courage to do not what is easy but what is hard. What does that mean?
Well, it means having the courage to keep studying new subjects throughout your life, to listen to those on the other side of an argument with an open mind -- instead of retreating into safe spaces. It means having the courage to re-examine your beliefs when data and science contradict them. It means having the courage to stand up to members of your own party when you believe they are wrong -- or when their actions put our great American experiment at risk. And it means having the courage to accept the results of an election -- even when, and especially when, you deplore the results.
Since last November, one of the popular protest slogans has been: “Not my president.” I understand the reasons to protest this president, and I said my piece last summer. So don’t get me wrong: Protest is an essential part of patriotism.
But at the same time, the fate of our American experiment rests upon the principle that the losing side accepts the legitimacy of the winning side -- and works in cooperation with it for the good of the country, rather than fomenting a revolution. This is what distinguishes us from so many other countries that routinely experience coups and military dictatorships. And it’s what has allowed the freedoms that were declared on July 4, 1776, to be preserved and extended ever wider.
True patriots, as Washington explained in his Farewell Address, serve country ahead of party, and put our national unity above their personal opinions.
At Independence Hall in 1787, the delegates to the Second Constitutional Convention haggled over everything from the power of states to the status of slaves. Some who did not like the compromises left Philadelphia in protest. Other critics remained, and their opposition threatened to sink the Constitution’s chances for ratification. But before the final vote, the delegates heard a speech by an aging Ben Franklin. Franklin acknowledged his own misgivings about the Constitution, but he urged each opponent to “doubt a little of his own infallibility.”
Doubt a little of your own infallibility. Seven words of advice that would be hard to improve upon in any commencement address. Those seven words are credited with helping to assure adoption and ratification of what has proven to be a true work of genius. As you make your way in the world, and as you get involved in public issues in one form or another, I hope you will always carry those words with you.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at email@example.com