A recent piece from The Conversation raises some interesting questions about what makes up a patriot.

The piece, written by Stewart Clem of Aquinas Institute of Theology puts to the test the very topic that President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden attempted to discuss in the first presidential debate this week. Unfortunately, got lost in a section that turned into sniping about the other’s family.

Questions about Biden’s son, a soldier, got testy, in part because the back and forth talked about loyalty.

Clem points out the concept that a “good” patriot unquestionably loves his country unconditionally is not in keeping with how it has been viewed throughout history.

The word “patriot” comes from the ancient Greek “patrios,” translated as “of one’s fathers.” As such, in the original meaning a patriot is someone who belongs to one’s fatherland. No judgment was made as to how that person should view the fatherland. This came later, Clem notes in The Conversation.

The medieval scholastics — a diverse group of thinkers including such luminaries as St. Bonaventure and St. Anselm of Canterbury — were known for reviving and developing ideas that originated in ancient Greek philosophy, he writes.

To belong to something, according to the scholastics, is not a mere observation of fact. It generates moral obligations because we owe a debt to the things that give us life. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, which have given us birth and nourishment. Thus, a person is debtor chiefly to their parents and their country, after God,” Clem notes.

“The scholastics had a name for this virtue: piety. The virtuous person honors and loves the things that have brought them into being, and this includes one’s homeland. ‘Piety,’ St. Thomas writes, ‘is a declaration of the love we bear toward our parents and our country,’” Clem writes. “While perceived wrongdoing may lead us to denounce the actions of our country’s government, such criticism is compatible with — and, indeed, necessitated by — the virtue of piety, according to the scholastic understanding of the virtue of justice.”

He concludes that what we can learn from the scholastics is that the heart of patriotism is not an unwavering commitment to the objective superiority of one’s country — rather, the heart of patriotism is love.

“As such, we should study the shameful aspects of our nation’s past not only because it is fair and honest but also because it can can make us love our country more. In short, it can make us better patriots,” he wrote.

Which brings up an interesting point relative to our schools.

Late last month, Trump announced plans for a more patriotic and pro-American curriculum, called the 1776 Commission.

Trump decried what he said was a “twisted web of lies” being taught in U.S. classrooms about systemic racism in America, calling it “a form of child abuse.” He reprised themes from a speech he gave in July at Mount Rushmore.

“Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse, the truest sense,” Trump said. “For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness. They’re wrong. There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children. And patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

The federal government does not have jurisdiction over school curriculum.

Trump decried “a radical movement” working against telling a more flattering version of U.S. history as Democrats’ efforts to smear the country for political gain.

In unveiling a proposed “1776 Commission” to ensure that “our youth will be taught to love America,” Trump was seemingly responding to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project. That project aims to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Clem notes that Trump appears to imply that loving America is incompatible with acknowledging that the U.S. has oppressed certain people and groups on its path to glory.

That is concerning for a lot of reasons, and a test to our nation’s loyalty to our past.

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