Many progressive achievements have roots in the July 5 style of patriotism. When President Lyndon Johnson made the case for the Voting Rights Act in a national TV broadcast before Congress in 1965, he called the United States “the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose”: creating a free society of equal citizens. That purpose was a measure of failure as well as success.
In a country where “Emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact,” Johnson warned, if inequality was not addressed, America would “have failed as a people and as a nation.” The country could “gain the whole world and lose his own soul,” he said, paraphrasing the Book of Mark. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., too, called the principles of the American founding “a promissory note” that had come due, and urged the country to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
This version of patriotism links criticism of our country’s failings with a commitment to changing them. It cleaves to principles of freedom and equality because they are right, and also because they are ours, they are us. It addresses America’s worst aspects, not as enemies to be eliminated (as in our many domestic “wars” on this or that) but as we would approach a friend or family member who had lost their way. In this spirit, even the harshest reproach, the most relentless list of wrongs, comes with a commitment to repair and heal, to build a more just and decent country. It also entails a practical faith: As long as change might be possible, we owe it to one another to try.