Periodically we hear Republicans skeptically ask if President Obama is a patriot who loves his country, and is he a Christian? I'm more interested in why people ask these questions, and how their answers of "No" or "I don't know" reveal more about the questioners than about Obama. I'm also interested in how such people respond to these two questions: What is a patriot? What is a Christian?
I could not have had a more patriotic beginning, or so I was taught to believe. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. But my views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years.
On my 12th birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, "From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this Flag Day ceremony in 1954, perhaps because the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office and says nothing about any almighties.
"Under God" was inserted at the height of the McCarthy era to distinguish patriotic Americans from those "godless Communists." This melding of God and country turned a secular pledge into a religious one, and caused me to feel less, rather than more, patriotic when I no longer believed in any gods.
Although we tend to deify our nation's founders and hold them up as role models, we act more like them when we question the old order and try to improve it. Criticizing our country and working to eliminate its faults is definitely patriotic -- a lot more so than merely reciting pledges and prayers or waving flags.
One of the many differences between Evangelical Christians and atheists in this country is that the majority of evangelicals believe America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 20 percent of those without religion.
I'm reminded of the movie Head of State, in which Chris Rock is running for President against a candidate who ends all his speeches with, "God bless America, and nowhere else!" I can no longer hear "God bless America" from a politician without thinking of that three-word ending. I suppose many religious Americans believe it's unpatriotic to say that God plays no favorites with the human race and blesses people of all countries.
Along with the notion that God blesses America (and nowhere else) comes "American Exceptionalism," as in the biblical city on a hill. Why do some Americans want all countries to emulate America, but create so many barriers for those desperately seeking a better life here?
That President Obama is viewed as soft on immigration is yet another reason some think he is unpatriotic and doesn't love America. Perhaps they would like to see the phrase on the Statue of Liberty change to: Keep your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I recognize how fortunate I am to have been born in a country and family where I have had ample opportunities to attain a decent education and standard of living. What should we do about those to whom much is not given, whether born in this or another country? Though there are no easy answers, I wish Americans would be more charitable in understanding the plight of illegal immigrants and our least fortunate citizens. It is through pure chance of birth that many of us, myself included, are not sneaking into other countries to find jobs because our own country can't provide the work we are eager to do to feed our families.
I'm willing to take President Obama at his word when he says he is a Christian, but I also think that many politicians (and perhaps Obama) make a political decision to publicly embrace a religious belief. Most of all, in a country that prides itself in having freedom of religion and conscience, I wish we would judge our candidates on their political positions and not on their professed religious beliefs.