Patriotism’s True Color, or Green: the New Red White and Blue

This column was the UPI Religion and Spirituality Forum’s featured commentary on July 2, 2007.

Both my country and my grandfather were born on the fourth of July, and while only a handful of Americans this week will remember the birth of William Mullenger of Crawford County, Iowa, his lasting legacy of service to his country is worth mentioning as a nation prepares itself for the great manifestations of patriotic celebration that, for the next few days will mark American life from sea to shining sea.

My grandfather was a patriot. He served his country in uniform during the First World War—mostly digging graves for his brothers in arms who succumbed to the flu’ pandemic of 1917—but a fuller expression of the love for his country was my grandfather’s dedication to the five hundred acres of farmland he inherited from his father and worked his entire life.

My grandfather understood his duty to leave his farm—and by extension his country—in better shape than he found it. Mostly this meant doing the work of preventing the erosion of topsoil, an irreplaceable natural resource that slowly is being depleted across the American Midwest through careless farming practices, as muddy water runs off the fields and into creeks and streams, eventually flowing down the Big Muddy and emptying like a huge, horizontal plume of waterborne smoke into the Gulf of Mexico.

To protect and preserve the topsoil on his land, my grandfather plowed his fields along the contours of the farm’s hills and he planted trees along banks of the creeks that crossed the farm. Water ran clean off his land and—thanks to the trees he planted—it still does, though he’s been gone for more than twenty-five years.

For too long the popular American imagination has carried an image of the modern patriot that includes an unquestioning support of American military and commercial ambition. The stereotypical marks of contemporary patriotism tend to include a flag flying on the front porch, a yellow ribbon “support our troops” sticker on the Ford F-150, and an undying commitment to keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Patriotism, in other words, is a religion for most of us. It is defined by symbols and creeds; it puts its faith in powers and principalities—military superiority and the unending abundance of free markets—that operate, as if by magic, in places we see only on TV.

I’d like to see that change. As a Christian I already have a religion, and as an American I’d like to see patriotism’s practical application. I’d like to see Americans reverence the flag less and honor the land more. The time has come for green to be the new red white and blue.

Instead of watching helplessly as American military personnel oversee the disintegration of Iraq, I’d like to participate in the restoration of American wetlands and watersheds. Rather than watching my elected leaders strong-arm the cultivation of markets for American commodities for the benefit of a few large agri-business conglomerates, I’d like to see the considerable weight of America’s brain trust get behind the work of developing farm policies that preserve small scale farming economies while producing an overabundance of healthy food for America’s children.

I’d like to see a new face on America’s patriotic image. Less Dick Cheney and more Wendell Berry; less Rush Limbaugh and more William Mullenger.

The last time I saw the bit of land my grandfather farmed, my roommate and I were driving from my home in Northern California to our seminary in Central New Jersey. Not long after we left Nebraska, we found ourselves driving down a dusty, dirt county road to where it dips down a hill five miles or so outside of Denison, Iowa. We got out of the car and looked at my grandfather’s farm—across the place where the house and barn once stood and out over the fields. While we stood there looking at the late summer corn, a neighbor drove up on a combine and asked us about our business. When I identified myself by giving my mother’s maiden name the stranger on the big machine warmed considerably. “Your grandpa Bill was a great farmer,” he said. “Look at all those trees he planted.”

Those trees didn’t just make my grandfather a great farmer. They made him a great American.

21 thoughts on “Patriotism’s True Color, or Green: the New Red White and Blue

  1. Ben,
    Your column for the Fourth of July resonates with me. My maternal great grandparents and grandparents homesteaded in western Nebraska. I have great love for the area and still visit annually. They planted shelter belts and trees around their houses and practiced good soil conservation. Two of my uncles taught agronomy at the Universities of Nebraska and Iowa State and prepared their students for the future of agriculture and conservation. How sad for us that all of the original homesteads were not kept in the family. Agri-business companies bought them and installed circular sprinkler systems that are depleting the underground aquifers. Pumpkin Creek, once a flourishing waterway through the farm, now has a trickle of water with trees dying along its banks. I applaud your idea of green patriotism and protection of family farming.

  2. What a touching and meaningful memory of your
    grandfather and also a new way of looking at
    true patriotism. God Bless The World and help
    us keep it Green!

  3. Benjamin,

    I have always been suspicious of Red, White, and Blue. Being a child of the Big and Cold wars I was never thrilled with the choices: RED suggested something Communist, WHITE suggested something descriminatory, and BLUE sounded depressing. I feel most comfortable with the Rainbow coalition…but I understand your preference for Green Patriotism.

    Woodrow Wilson, from Keota, Iowa, went off to WWI to France in 1914 and never came back. He was probably buried by Grampa Mullenger in one of those graveyards full of tiny white croses in the French countryside. Later Gramma remarried Ralph Garton and my father was adopted, thus my last name. At birth I was Woodrow Garton. Later my mother had second thoughts and changed my name to Ronald. But somewhere in my ancestral soil there is some Iowa top soil and a longing for the Green.

    I will be hanging out Old Glory this afternoon. But this year I will add a green cloth on one side and a rainbow cloth on the other. And I will be smiling as I sing….De Colores in Spanish!

    Colorfully yours,

    Woodrow Wilson Garton…..aka Ronn

  4. Great article ben! I have spent a considerable part of my summer reading about the ethics of ecology–Art Leopold, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder, and others who care about our land and how we leave it, who take the time to write about our land in a way that shows both their love of country and concern for the future.

    “Whether you will or not
    You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
    Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
    When they are gone, not the same place it was.
    Mark what you leave.”

    that we may all be more aware of what we are leaving for those who live beyond us.

  5. Ben:

    I am thrilled to read your words. Thank you for making your contribution to humanity and our planet!

    Blessings to you and yours!


  6. Ben,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your “green” aspiration for the U.S. There is so much to be said for reverence for the land, as many of my American Indian (If American Indian is good enough for Russell means, it is good for me. it is certainly no less “European” than “Native American” or the utterly confusing, an possibly historically inaccurate, neologism “First People.”) mentors have taught me over the years.

    I find your stereotyping of patriotism simplistic, doctrinaire, conveniently negative, disappointing. Cheney and Limbaugh may be symbols of philosophies and popular boogey men, but they are not symbolic of patriotism to most Americans. While popular in “progressive” circles, I suggest your jaundiced portrayal of American patriotism is highly inaccurate. The religion of most Americans, patriots as well, is a spiritual matter. Pride and concern for ones nation, the principles it is founded on, is another thing entirely. A patriot cares for the well being of the nation, its citizens and its future, or is in no way a patriot. There is no conflict between reverence for what the flag symbolizes, not the flag itself, genuine patriotism, and your vision of a “greener” U.S.A.

    I will end with a quote.

    “Fundamentally I believe that American patriotism is different from other patriotisms. It’s not a blood-and-soil nationalism…. We are a nation based not on race or deep roots in a particular landscape, but on a proposition, on certain political and philosophical ideals.” —journalist and historian Jonathan Foreman

    Best regards,


  7. Don’t throw out the “baby with the bathwater”… True red white and blue means (if we believe it)
    a green environment. We can make it happen if we elect the real Americans!

  8. Friends,

    Thanks for the comments. I am proud to have such thoughtful readers. Lea,I like Harry’s reminder: let’s raise Old Glory on Wednesday and let it rally us to take back Pumpkin Creek and all of the other Pumpkin Creeks. Surely such a reclaimation would be a service to God, Family and Country. I like Ronn’s flag and will try to make a copy myself. Sara, I’m Glad they teach a reverence for the earth at Harvard Divinity School. It was lacking at Princeton.

    Michael, thanks for the encouragement. Randy, thanks for keeping me honest.

    And, as Judy has said, “God bless the world and help us keep it green.” Indeed. God bless us, everyone.


  9. Randy Shadoe’s remarks re: your stereotyping of patriotism are right on point. I find your stereotyping of agribusiness and your comments about the military and free markets found “only on TV” equally odious.

    I am a native of Iowa, and spent a good part of my life there; I still have a large extended family there and in neighboring farm states. And the last time I checked, small farmers were at least as delighted with, and in favor of, price supports and other government programs that protect agriculture, as were those in agribusiness. Press them; you’ll find how much they really would love truly free markets (no price supports, for instance, or protective tariffs) for agricultural products.

    I happen to be one of those patriots who sees the absolute need for military superiority. If the US will not be the world’s preeminent super-power, who would your choice be? China? Would you really like to see Japan, Inc., with its efficiency, industrial and technological capacity re-arm in response to Chinese preeminence? Do you have another candidate in mind? If its’s not the US, better think hard about who it will be; power abhors a vacuum.

    And last, do not be so quick to condemn agribusiness for not being “green” enough. In reading a lengthy biography of J.G. Boswell, Inc., the largest agribusiness in the US, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn how surprisingly green their operations are. Why? Because it’s more profitable. At the corporate farm level, chemicals in quantity (to name one example) get very expensive. And the intent is to add to the bottom line, not to overhead costs.

    Those who wish to do so may fly their flags of many colors. The good old red, white and blue is plenty good enough for me.

  10. Bill,

    Like Randy you don’t like my description of a patriot. That’s fine, but what, in your mind, does non-religious, “boots on the ground” patriotism look like? Supporting a strong military is one way, but you and I are both too old to join up (well, actually I have till August 7, 2008 to join the chaplaincy corps, but don’t hold your breath).

    I’ve mentioned caring for America’s environment and preserving its natural rescources as a good way to express a patriotism. What is your way?


  11. I fully accept Randy’s definition: a care for the nation, its well-being, and its principles.

    Every rational person wants to preserve the environment and the nation’s natural resources. But the devil always is in the details, isn’t it? For example: most greens I’ve encountered are quick to mouth what amount to pieties about “renewable resources,” while condemning, say, nuclear power. But I doubt many of them have traveled I-10 east into Texas, and seen ridge after ridge after ridge built — indeed, I would say overbuilt — with windfarms. Imagine the Altamont Pass area with its windmills — miles and miles of them. And so it goes with what once was that area’s visual beauty.


  12. Ben,

    I acknowledge this is lengthy and this is in part a cumulative comment on your body of work here.

    To answer your question to Bill, and indirectly to me, I repeat, from my previous posting, “A patriot cares for the well being of the nation, its citizens and its future…” A complete characterization of genuine patriotism would require a book length document.

    “[C]aring for America’s environment and preserving its natural resources,” is in no way in conflict with traditional American patriotism. Patriotism, is among other things, about opposition to all that is deleterious to our republic, its principles, and the land upon which it exists. Expressing American patriotism is not about hollow symbols, talk show hosts, false religiosity, hypocrisy, being allied with corporations, The Evil Cheney-Bush-Capitalist Cabal, supporting imperialism, causing depletion of top soil, or anything negative. Patriotism is about, patriots wish, to bequeath a positive future, more than sustainable, ever improving in all ways, to posterity.

    Your unnecessary attack on a ginned up caricature of patriotism inspires, begs, counter comments from those who espouse a very different philosophy. The real choices are far more than the simple either or implied in the piece. As the accuser, you invoke the right of, invite and should welcome, rebuttal, and the burden of proof is upon you alone.

    I is not that I, “don’t like…[your]…description of a patriot…” Why is it necessary to personalize everything? It is that any honest, cogent and factual analysis reveals it as simplistic bigoted stereotype. It appears a straw man, created to be kicked to the ground to make a difficult and complex, and in this case unnecessary, distracting, argument simple and easy. This is a common device used when “preaching to the choir,” when no diversity of opinion is expected, or invited.

    If the role were reversed, any “progressive” worth their salt would be charging bigotry, negative stereotyping, hate speech, and probably McCarthyism and racism for good measure.

    “Progressives” appear to want to have it both ways; decry any suggestion, most often imagined or contrived, that they’re protests are less than patriotic, assert dissent is patriotic, yet confabulating negative stereotypes of patriots and patriotism to tar those who they dislike, but fail to summon the resources to cogently disagree with.

    You have a “bully pulpit,” and the opportunity to write positive, unifying, strong, cogent commentaries. Promoting, “caring for America’s environment and preserving its natural resources,” supporting family farms, and many other wonderful goals, is an expression of the rich diversity of American patriotism, is a strong unifying argument. One hard, if not impossible to disagree with.

    Once again, however, for some reason, you felt compelled to weaken and sidetrack your argument, by becoming negative, indulging in expressing personal dislike of individuals, expressing biased stereotypes of those with whom you disagree. In my humble opinion you have a rare outlet, a wonderful idea to express there, and sullied both with distracting, superfluous, weak, unsupported, negativity. A unifying idea unnecessarily made divisive.

    I know for myself, and surmise that Bill, would have whole heartedly offered support for your primary positive concept had it not been tainted.

    Were I your editor, I would encourage you to write a long rambling viscerally satisfying commentary in which you rage, insult and sneer at everyone and everything you dislike. I would then ask you delete it and go forth and write solid commentaries, positively promoting your beliefs, sans distracting attacks. Reserve accusations to arguments built upon a solid, and presented, body of evidence. You may receive fewer adulations from those who already agreed with you before they read you comments, but you will draw in and persuade a wider audience. You will achieve more good.

    At the risk of being too personal, Ben, I know you. I have shared and argued ideas with you. I have tasted your heart. Your commentaries are often a disappointment. You seem compelled to indulge in personalities, division, negatives, stereotypes, unsupported accusation, when you have so many strong cogent unifying positives to offer.

    With some trepidation, much love, friendship, great respect and best regards,


  13. Randy and Bill,

    Your posts inspired me to reread my column and I suggest you do the same. I think the two of you are projecting here.

    I presented a stereotype of contemporary patriotism. I acknowledged it as a stereotype, and I said nothing negative about it. It is only a negative stereotype if you think that “a flag flying on the front porch, a yellow ribbon “support our troops” sticker on the Ford F-150, and an undying commitment to keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance” are bad things.

    I don’t. I just don’t think they are as useful to the future of our nation as is, for example, preserving topsoil in Iowa, and that is what my column is about.

    Reread the piece.


  14. Randy speaks long and hard, but there is no villian to attack. I think we are on the same page. Bill paints a countryside of windmills; for me, they are more pleasant to the eye than oil derrecks seated in blackened ponds. And their product does not fuel the ozone layer. Let’s call a truce, plant a few trees, and try to leave the landscape more alive and fertile when we depart this, our island home. One wonders whether there were weeds in Eden?

    I am reminded of the words of H. H. Farmer, “If you go against the grain of the universe, you get splinters.”

  15. The point is not whether windmills are less photogenic than oil derricks. The point is that everything carries downsides and tradeoffs. I believe a great many of our energy problems can be solved through technology, but it is much more likely to happen through profit-motivated progress than through liberal platitudes between group hugs and verses of Kumbayah.


  16. …liberal platitudes between group hugs and verses of Kumbayah.

    Not, of course, that any of us ever resorts to sterotypes 🙂

  17. “Not, of course, that any of us ever resorts to sterotypes…”

    Nope, nobody but us knuckle-draggers with gun racks in our F-150s. 😉

  18. And with that, I am going to excercise the moderator’s priviledge of ending all discussion around steretypes. A mountain has been made of a mole hill. Let’s talk about the patriotic merrits of preservation, conservation, and treading lightly on the earth!

  19. Ben,
    I would be interested in hearing more about your grandfather, I to was born on a farm outside of Denison, IA not so many years ago.

  20. William,

    Judging by your name, I’d say you’re probably my first cousin, once removed.

    In addition to having a grandfather named William Mullenger, I also had an uncle and a cousin with the same name. They are probably your father and grandfather. Incidentally one of my middle names and my son’s first name are also William.

    Drop me a note using the “Contact” form on me web page, and I’d be very happy to talk more. I also can put you in touch with my mother and my aunt (your grandfather’s two living siblings), who are my main sources of information about WR Mullenger, our common patriarch.



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