I am a little delirious this evening, since my alarm woke me up at 2:20 this morning. Like any self-respecting basketball-fan patriot, I got up to watch the Redeem Team do the work of basketball redemption. Then I spent my priestly Sunday carrying out the work of the Redemption (of the world—basketball players and everybody else) at the Holy Altar. So I am seriously bushed. But the game was worth getting up early for, and not just because it was a surprisingly competitive game. (Hats off to Spain for fighting tough to the end.)
Anyway, the NBC announcer Mike Breen said this about the smiles on the faces of Bryant, Wade, James, and Co. when the last seconds of the fourth quarter were ticking down and American victory was finally assured: “These guys are all multi-millionaires. But these smiles are something special. The gold medal is worth more to them than all the money in their NBA contracts.”
Now, the man whom I regard as having generally infallible insight—Wesley Pruden—seems not to buy Kobe Bryant’s protestations of innocent, wide-eyed patriotism (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/aug/19/going-for-brass-in-beijing-2008/). The great sage of the Times refers to the birth of the Savior in this column about shallow patriotism. Perhaps he mentions Christ in order to put patriotism in its proper place, below allegiance to God and His Church. If so, I commend him for this. But in the case of Kobe and the Redeem Team, I think Master Pruden is being obtusely cynical (or maybe he just isn’t a true basketball fan). The euphoria of a few minutes after 4:00 a.m. this morning is genuine, for the players and for us fans.
Why? Why is it almost impossible NOT to be patriotic? Some might answer that it is because our nation has such beautiful ideals, that we stand for something so wonderful. I am not about to tackle the question of what exactly our ideals are, where they come from, and what they mean—maybe I will try to answer those questions later, after a night when I have had a bit more sleep. Nonetheless, I would like to say that the ideals of our country (beautiful as they may be) are not the primary reason why I was so happy in the pre-dawn hours this morning—or Kobe, or LaBron, or anyone else. The joy does not have to do with the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
We are patriotic first and foremost because it is a way that we love ourselves properly. The good Lord has taught us in the Gospel to love ourselves in proportion with how much God loves us, and He has taught us to love ourselves exactly as much as we love everyone else (not less). Everything intimately connected to us is therefore wonderful and lovable, too. First, our own bodies. Second, husband, wife, children. Third, parents. And fourth: Where we are from.
I love the Georgetown Hoyas with a spontaneous love, because it is where I am from: I was born in Georgetown hospital and grew up within a long walk from it. Northwest Washington, D.C. is my home, beloved to me in a way that no other place could ever be.
I love Team USA because it is my team, the team of my country, made up of fellow citizens who speak my language, eat the same kinds of food as me, and tend to find the same things funny and entertaining. The players on the Olympic basketball team may be black, and I am as white as they come, but they are nonetheless Americans like me; I have more in common with them than I have with the Spaniards. Kobe, LaBron, Dwayne Wade, and me (and the rest of the team) are united as sons of America the Beautiful; we are united in wanting that gold for our country.
Obviously, it is wrong for me to despise people who are not like me; after all, they are people, too, like I am. But it would likewise be a sin against proper self-love for me to suppress my natural affection for those who are more like me than others are. It is anti-social to deny our natural, spontaneous affinities. We are made to be social and to relate to the people near us, the people like us.
Some of us are made to be diplomats and study how to communicate precisely and effectively with other kinds of people. More power to the diplomats! We need them desperately; they are unsung heroes. But not everyone is made to take the Foreign Service exam. Most of us are made to love the people like us.
There is one more dimension to my spontaneous love for Team USA, one more reason why patriotism is a profound virtue: We love our country because we love the part of the earth where we live. We love the shape of the hills, the quality of the light in the sky, the way the seasons change. We love the buildings and the roads that we know.
Most people live their whole lives in their home territory. Why wouldn’t we? This is the place we are used to, that we know, the place full of familiarity that evokes memories. The people we love who have died are buried in the earth here. The people we know live nearby. All the world-wide webbing on earth cannot displace us physically from the part of the earth where we live. Eventually we have to turn the computer off and look outside. It is a part of loving ourselves well to love our part of the earth.
Gold! Gold! Redemption!