I want to be proud to be an American

Recently, I read an article (of which it seems there is no shortage these days) lamenting the partisan divide in our country. It used a couple examples from a new study to show how conservatives and liberals misunderstand each other: Democrats tend to assume Republicans don’t believe racism exists (most do), and Republicans tend to assume Democrats aren’t “proud to be American,” when in fact, more than four in five Democrats say they are.

This example bothered me. In my case, as a blue Utahn, the Republicans were right. But the underlying study made me feel misunderstood. Maybe I am just part of the 20 percent who doesn’t feel proud of America in 2019, but to me, asking for a feeling of pride is asking the wrong question. America will always be entitled to my love. But my pride can only be earned. 

Pride in my country connotes a sense of approval of the way it is behaving, and that is approval I cannot give. I don’t think this makes me less patriotic–in fact, my extreme disapproval over my country’s behavior is a reflection of my love. I want America to be and do better because I care, and because I believe it is fully capable of doing so. 

Witnessing the barbaric way the U.S. has treated children at our southern border has broken my heart in a way nothing else in my life has. Over the last few years, I have spent a few weeks providing volunteer legal assistance at the largest family detention center in the U.S. (I wrote more about that here.) That experience changed me, and it has made subsequent news treatment of asylum seekers feel terrifically raw. I have sat with them. I have borne witness to their stories. Some I still think about and pray for individually. 

I know my heart has been broken because when it grew back together, it grew back differently. The most puzzling and persistent example is the way I now feel about litters of baby animals. Unlike the rest of Salt Lake City, I am not a dog person. I have never had strong feelings toward animals generally–in fact, I have been known to eat them. Yet now, seeing a photo of someone with a new puppy, who I know has been recently separated from its mother, makes me fight the urge to weep. Same goes for animal mothers whose babies have been or will be taken away. I know this isn’t logical or realistic– it’s part of how our society works. And still, the very idea of innocent creatures separated from their families makes me cry.

This Fourth of July, there’s a lot that we can be grateful for–but for me, it isn’t America in its current state. I don’t know how you can celebrate a country at a time when you know it is actively, intentionally hurting children in its custody. It makes me want to skip the parades and go to a vigil instead.

Of course there are things that make me feel proud to be American. Right now, these feelings center around times when people mobilized to end oppression and suffering: the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the protests over the Muslim ban in 2017, the protests over the treatment of immigrants right now. (This is not an exclusive list.) 

There is another recent study ranking Utah as America’s 4th most patriotic state, based on things like voting and volunteer and military service. That ranking doesn’t surprise me, and it has made me reflect on what I consider the measure of patriotism in my own life. 

I think real patriotism is helping your country become its best self. You champion what you love about it, and you work to help it change in ways it needs to change. Being a good citizen is like being a good parent–the love you give your country is not free of responsibility. You hold it accountable. You celebrate when it makes good choices. You know that ultimately, you can’t control it, but you carry the hope that when you are old and grown, it will make you proud.

I love America. I hope that by next Fourth of July, I can feel proud of it.

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