In 2001, little more than a month or so after 9/11, I travelled from Israel – where I was studying in seminary – to England and then on to France. To get to France, my classmate and I chose to cross the English Channel by ferry to Caen and take the train to Paris for a few days. After about a day, I decided I didn’t much like Paris, so we headed back to Caen, rented a car, and toured Normandy.
Our first stop on that first morning in Normandy was St. Laurent Sur Mer – the American D-Day cemetery. We arrived the moment the park opened, walked through the gate, and came to attention as we saw the administrator begin to run Old Glory up the flag pole. The man saw us and shouted, “Are you Americans?” We responded positively and he motioned us to come over to him. He handed me the halyard and, responding to my open-mouthed stare, said, “We always like to have Americans raise the flag, if we can.”
It remains one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had – to raise the flag over the American boys who gave their lives to save the world. To help make, to paraphrase the great British poet Rupert Brooke, that corner of a foreign field forever America.
Love of country is best learned by observation – not just of those around us, but of the country itself. I’ve always believed that my patriotism doesn’t just come from my parents or from the good people of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I was raised – although those would be trustworthy sources, to be sure. Rather it comes from knowing our history, knowing our people, and knowing how we act in the world. The United States isn’t merely owed our reverence because we benefit from her freedom. She has earned it through sacrifice, charity, and righteousness.
On this Independence Day, I’ll take a few minutes to tell my boys about George Washington and John Adams (a favorite of mine who doesn’t get enough credit) and Thomas Jefferson. But I’ll also point out the older guys at the parade in our hometown with the VFW hats. I’ll point out the men and women in uniform. And I’ll point out all the folks running for office – even the ones that mom and dad disagree with.
Because it’s not just our past that makes us great. It’s our present and the promise of our future.
So, 100 years from now, when some other tourist shows up early on a fall morning at the cemetery at St. Laurent Sur Mer and gets to raise the flag over the graves of our fallen heroes, it will move him or her just as much as it moved me. Not because we’re the strongest country in the world. Not because we’re the wealthiest country in the world. But because of the innate goodness of a government founded on the will of a free people. Not perfect. Not flawless. But fundamentally good and decent at her core.