Patriotism, widely understood to be love for or devotion to one’s country, is what justifies citizens’ pride in the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideas and personal liberty.
For that reason, to see that concept cheapened by office-seeking politicians is a bit worrisome.
A recent article in The Washington Post dealt with American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the other nations of the world. And perhaps to all nations since the dawn of time for that matter.
It finds its expression in places such as the victory speech by Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio:
"Americans believe with all their heart, the vast majority of them, … that the United States of America is simply the greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all mankind."
Hyperbole such as this, taken together with statements that God has granted America a special role in human history, leads to mischief such as "liberation" and "regime change."
"It’s beneficent, benevolence are unmatched by any nation on earth and by any nation in history," Mitt Romney, a once and future presidential candidate, said of the United States in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
There is something bothersome about this "best ever" contention, almost a lack of self-esteem in the way it is expressed.
"When exceptionalism degenerates into a sense of national superiority, entitlement, smugness and inflated self-importance, it simply becomes a camouflage for pride, an attractive quality in neither politics nor ethics," wrote Brian D. McLaren, author of several books on faith and public life.
Exceptionalism may help to understand why the United Nations is disdained in some quarters. If "We’re Number One," it is easy to ignore or disregard the positions of others.
"Let us not misunderstand what it takes to bring about change in the world today," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a speech at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "Gone are the days when one country or bloc could take big steps, almost by fiat. Truly global action on global problems requires patience and determination. It means bringing the world along, step by gradual step."
The Vatican observer at the U.N., Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, noted "a lot of good will and genuine motivation in the international community and especially at the U.N." This is done by focusing on its original objectives.
He said the main goals of the United Nations were to "maintain international peace and security, to strengthen universal peace, to develop friendly relations among nations, to achieve international cooperation in solving problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, to promote respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all."
Insisting on superiority is inconsistent with forging the partnerships that build community. It leads away from the Christian belief in unity.
Exceptionalism is not helpful in working for a better, more peaceful world.
There is much to be said for humility, a virtue perfected by the one whose birth we celebrated last month.
Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.