I the late 70’s and early 80’s, in our earnest young evangelicals stage, Tracy and I learned a great deal about Christian-derived cults: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God (Armstrongism), Unity School, that sort of thing. One reference was Kingdom of the Cults, by Dr. Walter Martin. We may still have it on the bottom shelf.
Martin spent a lot of time with chapter-and-verse doctrinal questions, but he had a general insight that I have found useful on many fronts. Cults redefine terms, to make it sound like they are expressing traditional Christian ideas while introducing heterodox doctrines. There is a similar sentiment in CS Lewis, that we should beware speakers who use biblical references to mask modern ideas - William Jennings Bryan’s use of “Crucifying us on a Cross of Gold” when his goal was bimetallism, for example. It is closely tied to use of cliches, which also rely on hitting emotional buttons while remaining uh, flexible, about content.
There has been a lot of fury unleashed at Rudy Giuliani for claiming that President Obama doesn’t love America. (Some of this has spilled over onto Scott Walker for not denouncing this as well.) Missing from the discussion is the reality that the two sides mean different things when they use phrases like “love America.” The fight is about whose definition shall prevail. This is similar to all the discussion around the book True Patriot, which I reviewed and discussed in 2009. A Clinton speechwriter and an activist for educational, environmental, and income-equality causes got together to explain that real patriotism, as exemplified by true patriots, consists of wanting America to act in good ways, as they defined them. Patriotic displays were actually a negative indicator of real patriotism, as the people who go in for flag pins and yellow ribbons all think that is sufficient to be patriotic. (The authors would insist they said no such thing, yet they did, repeatedly.)
Barack Obama called George Bush unpatriotic, if you are looking for evidence of that point. The statement is simply insane, or calculated evil, by the traditional meaning of the word. One could logically claim that George Bush did many things which hurt the country or sent it in the wrong direction, or that his effects were worse than what a president who wasn’t patriotic might have done. Such things occur throughout history in every country. Sometimes it would have been better for their countries if some patriotic Greeks, or Japanese, or Americans had just stayed home and shut up. Patriotism is not the highest of virtues, nor is its sibling, love-of-country. Yet it does have a meaning, and according to that meaning George Bush clearly fits the bill.
Identifying as a patriot has political value, so people want to have it both ways. That there may be some virtue they are not entitled to claim is too upsetting. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that no one seems to be making the positive case that Obama loves America. I don't want to read into that that supporters don't have a positive case. They may be making a calculated effort not to give credence to the idea by answering it. I can't help but notice it, though.
I would classify myself as moderately patriotic, but I hold a fair bit in reserve in favor of what I consider to be higher claims. Rudi Giuliani is more of a patriot than I am, Barack Obama less. Rudi loves America warts and all, even while trying to change her. Obama loves an America that might occur in the future, if it would only act in a certain way. This is usually referred to as living up to her own ideals. The former is patriotism. The latter may be a superior, more moral sentiment, yet it is not love-of-country. The more strident type of liberal is usually quite clear about this, readily acknowledging that they don’t think patriotism is a good thing and love of country a dangerous precondition for refusing to acknowledge wrong. Michelle Obama gave voice to this when saying that she had not been proud of America until her husband was elected president. While actual patriots might find that infuriating, it’s not crazy in and of itself. We can all imagine a citizen of another country not being proud of it until it had finally stood up to an oppressor, or held free elections, or whatever.
President Obama’s comment early in his first term that he was proud of America in the same way that a Greek was proud of being a Greek illustrated dramatically that he simply does not know what meaning that has for other Americans.