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.