Being A Good American Doesn’t Mean Being A Bad Human

by Isla Harrington
Originally Published: 
A bunch of little American flags stuck in a field

If you come by my house around the 4th of July, you’ll see lots of red, white, and blue. You might spot the “Baseball, hotdogs, America!” sign on our porch. (It’s cheesy, but I love it.) My kids would probably be wearing festive patriotic colors as they wave their sparklers and engorge their bellies with s’mores and root beer floats. And, of course, our flag is proudly blowing in the breeze, just like it does the rest of the year.

So yeah, you could say I’m patriotic. Growing up, my father instilled in me a strong sense of love and appreciation for what it meant to be an American. He and both of my grandfathers, my grandmother, my father-in-law, and several of my brothers-in-law are veterans. Not a “soldier homecoming” video passes by my FB feed without me ugly crying. And the national anthem usually brings a tear to my eye as I stand with my head over my heart.

But over the past few years, it seems that the word “patriotic” has developed a negative connotation, and that’s heart-breaking to those of us who fiercely love this country. To those of us whose grandfathers stormed the beaches of Normandy as mere teenagers and served in Iraq, Vietnam, and around the U.S., protecting their fellow citizens.

So as a proud American who raised with a strong devotion to these 50 states, here’s what “patriotism” means to me today.


Being patriotic means loving this land—literally from sea to shining sea. As a person who’s lived in five different states spanning from the Northeast to the Midwest and who’s traveled to the west coast, deep south, and cities and states in between, I can say that I’ve seen a lot of this country to know how much I love it. And to know what being “patriotic” means. It means embracing the bustling diversity of New York City and the wide-open peacefulness of Iowa farms that go on for miles. It means chatting with an elderly farmer in rural Kansas and a gay couple just starting out their lives together in Seattle. It means learning the story of how the United States came to be—and learning from our successes and failures. (And yes, loving this country means recognizing that we have failed at times, and we should learn from those mistakes.)

Loving this country means appreciating exactly what we are. We are not a white nation, or a Christian nation. We are so much more than that, and painting such a narrow-minded picture does a severe disservice to all the beautiful diversity this nation has woven through it. Loving the United States means finding the best Mexican food or Chinese food in town — a place owned by someone of that culture — when you’re on a road trip with your kids because everyone loves tacos and dumplings. Or visiting a new neighbor, seeing their Koran on the table, trying their homemade dishes of curry and kebabs, and celebrating the diversity this new friend brings to your street. It means appreciating immigrants who are your children’s teachers, pediatricians, cashiers, garbage collectors, and members of congress.

Being a good American means realizing that there might be a Baptist church on one corner downtown and a mosque across the street. And appreciating the value in this — that we all share the same sidewalks, grocery store, and gas stations. And that our children play together at school or at the park, seeing the beauty in people with different religious beliefs, different skin tones, and different cultures.

Loving this country means remembering how strong and powerful we are, but also remembering that famous “With great power comes great responsibility” quote. Or, for the biblically-minded, this from the book of Luke: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

So how come many Americans feel that their patriotic duty means only caring for “our own?” And that those who disagree about certain things should simply “leave?” That mindset doesn’t make a person a “good American,” but rather the exact opposite.

Because what even is “our own” since almost all of us descended from immigrants anyway? How many generations does it take for a family to live in the U.S. before they’re officially welcomed and considered worthy of help? If a veteran is a first-generation American, or even an immigrant him/herself, do they also deserve aid after serving our country? And how can we possibly turn our backs on suffering children simply because they weren’t born on U.S. soil when none of us get to choose where we are born?

Have we forgotten the basic premises our government was initially founded upon? Freedom from persecution. Freedom to practice your own religion. Freedom to speak, disagree, protest, and vote. Yet here we are in 2019 still fighting about religious rights. Here we are in 2019 still trying to pass laws based on Christianity alone, and therefore denying basic rights to other religions. Here we are in 2019 with a government hell-bent on keeping out refugees who are fleeing persecution themselves, as so many of our ancestors did. Here we are with a president who makes it his mission to ruin the lives of anyone who dares to disagree with him, as a dictator would, not the president of a democracy.

So does patriotism have a new definition now?

Does a patriotic American only protect white skin? Or only Christians? Or only citizens so far removed from their immigrant history that they feel superior to immigrants of today who seek a better life, just as their great-grandparents did?

Does it mean only providing aid to humans inside our borders and ignoring the suffering of those in other nations? Even though “much is given to us,” as that famous biblical quote says?

Does it mean chastising, or even punishing someone who doesn’t stand for the flag or speaks out against racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry?

Or does it means blindly supporting our elected officials out of fear, or maybe just the hope that such xenophobia will make your America somehow better, or richer, or probably just whiter?

Is that what patriotism has turned into? Is that what it means to be a “good American,” even though our nation is a richly diverse rainbow of races, ethnicities, and religions?

Jon Sailer/Unsplash

No, it’s not.

You can be a good American and still want to help those around the world.

You can be a good American and help a U.S. veteran and their family as well as a family from Syria.

You can be a good American and advocate for the rights of foster children and the homeless within our borders as well as children who are suffering, hungry, homeless, and in need of medical attention in other nations.

You can be a good American and fight for women’s rights to control their own bodies in Alabama and Georgia as well as in India or Sudan.

You can be a good American and protest the inhumane way refugees and asylum-seekers are being treated as they seek safety and stability for their families.

You can be a good American and regret the way your ancestors oppressed people of color into slavery and stole the lands and lives from Native Americans. You can be a good American and learn about these atrocities and do your part to ensure that their rights and sacred lands are protected today.

You can proudly fly your flag by your front door and disagree with everything the current president stands for. You can stand tall with your hand over your heart as you hear the Star Spangled Banner while also respecting the peaceful protests of those who kneel. You can be a proud American and support politicians who aren’t Christian, or who are immigrants, over their white counterparts who claim to believe in God and were born here.

You can do all of this because of how much you love your country. And because you know that you have been given much, and therefore have a great responsibility.

Because that’s what it means to be a patriotic American. A “good” American.

So yeah, we celebrated the 4th of July this year, like every other year. We had family and friends over, drank beer, cooked up hot dogs and hamburgers, and lit off fireworks, just like Americans in California and Oklahoma probably did. Because celebrating this country is something we take pride in. But make no mistake — we also take pride in our power to vote. In our power to protest. And in the diversity of our neighbors — all of them. Regardless of skin color, or religion, or how long they’ve lived on our street.

Being a good American doesn’t mean fighting for a whiter America or a more Christian America or an America with fewer immigrants. And it doesn’t mean forgetting about the suffering of others around the world. And until our fellow “patriots” realize that, sadly, America won’t be “great again” at all.

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