Love of country can be a force for evil

When politicians invoke patriotism, it is rarely in the context of generosity or inclusiveness
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The Independent Online

There may well come a moment over the next 15 days when British hearts will swell with pride and tears will prick the eyes as one of our representatives in Greece stands victorious on a podium, the Union Jack fluttering high above. The experts say that there is little chance of gold this time, but the rest of us know that all it needs is for a few foreigners to under-perform and for Paula, or Kelly, or some shooter or eventer to raise their game, and suddenly, briefly, the Olympics will be a glorious celebration of our own patriotism.

There may well come a moment over the next 15 days when British hearts will swell with pride and tears will prick the eyes as one of our representatives in Greece stands victorious on a podium, the Union Jack fluttering high above. The experts say that there is little chance of gold this time, but the rest of us know that all it needs is for a few foreigners to under-perform and for Paula, or Kelly, or some shooter or eventer to raise their game, and suddenly, briefly, the Olympics will be a glorious celebration of our own patriotism.

Under these circumstances, it was tactless and ill-timed of a clergyman from Manchester to have a pop at nationalism and even to compare it to the rise of Nazism. The Bishop of Hulme, one of those C of E small-timers who jump up from the substitute's bench and draw attention to themselves while the first-team bishops are on holiday, has told his parishioners that the much-loved and venerable hymn "I Vow to Thee, My Country" should be banned from churches.

The second verse, which saw heaven as another country whose fortress is a faithful heart and so on, was fine, he said; it was the first verse that posed the problem. Those who sang it were professing that their love for their own country was not only "all earthly things above, entire and whole and perfect" but was, more significantly, "the love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test".

According to the bishop, a patriotism that puts an unquestioning national loyalty before all other religious or moral considerations is not only heretical but panders to a new mood of nationalism and xenophobia. For a nation to suggest that its culture was somehow superior to others was dangerous, he said.

It is tempting to dismiss these remarks, and the fuss that has surrounded them, as little more than silly-season nonsense. Hymns, after all, are not there to be taken seriously; anyone who has attempted to obviate the dreariness of a church service by actually paying attention to what is being droned by the rest of the congregation will know that all sorts of imperialist tosh and sonorous gibberish are to be found in Hymns Ancient and Modern. For most people, singing "I Vow to Thee, My Country" to a rather good tune by Holst is an Anglican version of meditation: it purifies the mind by emptying it of any kind of thought or analysis.

But in fact the bishop is making a sensible and apposite point. If a state religion seriously proposes that love of country is more important than faith, love, forgiveness or any other spiritual virtue, and that furthermore it should ask no questions, it sacrifices any kind of moral or intellectual authority. It is placing a rather unnerving form of blinkered nationalism at the heart of religious faith.

The nature of patriotism has changed since 1918 when Sir Cecil Spring-Rice wrote the words to the famous hymn. When, a decade or so ago, football fans adopted the flag of St George, the love of country that they represented was based on an ignorant distrust of foreigners, on aggression, on a leering, truculent yet fearful sense of the English national character.

It is no coincidence that this rise of patriotic pride, the St George effect, has become associated with the nasty intolerance of the British National Party, the little-England paranoia of UKIP. These days, when politicians invoke patriotism, it is rarely in the context of generosity or inclusiveness, almost always an indicator that another small loss of liberty is on its way.

Our allies in the Coalition of the Willing have led the way in politicising love of country and annexing it to the cause of intolerance. It is the US Patriot Act which has allowed the arrest and detention of citizens without recourse to a lawyer, given the state the right to scrutinise an individual's book-buying or library-borrowing habits, and banned any kind of open protest at political rallies.

In the same spirit, our own Home Secretary can boast that he is not deporting detainees out of concern that they will be tortured abroad while, on the same day, welcoming the Court of Appeal ruling that evidence acquired by foreign torturers will now be acceptable in a British court.

When patriotism is invoked to justify this kind of behaviour, then it has acquired layers of secondary meaning which are mostly to do with an over-zealous and defensive intolerance of foreigners. Inevitably, it will continue to play a part in our political lives and elsewhere - sport would be exceedingly dull without it.

But anyone dealing with larger matters of morality, particularly if they are speaking on behalf of an established religion, should see patriotism, in its modern guise at least, as a force for evil, not good. Instead of leaning on the outmoded words of Victorian and Edwardian poets, they might usefully remember Henry David Thoreau's conclusion to his book Walden:

"Some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads."

Put those words to a tune by Holst, and I shall happily sing along to them.

terblacker@aol.com

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