Overview:

How can progressives love a country that's often broken its founding promises? It's a fair question, but we're not the first ones to ask it.

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For millions of Americans, the Fourth of July is a red-white-and-blue festival of patriotism. Grill some burgers, watch some fireworks, and reflect on how we’re blessed to live in the greatest nation that’s ever existed on earth.

But for some of us, the Fourth of July stirs up more complicated feelings.

Loving your country doesn’t depend on whether you’re on the left or the right. For millions of us across the political spectrum, America is our home, either by birth or by adoption, and we want to see it thrive. We celebrate it for its exuberant diversity, its creativity, its multiculturalism, and the good things it’s brought forth.

However, those good wishes can coexist with a desire to call America to account for the wrongs that it’s allowed to persist. That desire has come into sharp focus in the last few years.

High aspirations, broken promises

The Trump presidency reinvigorated the white supremacist movement and proved that millions of Americans would happily live under an autocracy. The death of George Floyd ignited nationwide protests, but failed to bring about lasting police reform. Scarcely a day goes by without more gun massacres. COVID-19 continues to exact a toll, especially on the elderly and the working poor. Inequality remains sky-high, keeping the American dream dangling out of reach for everyone except the wealthy. And now the Supreme Court is on a rampage to roll back religious freedom and women’s rights.

Those high aspirations clash with the messy reality that we’ve always been a society of caste and class.

In so many ways, America has failed to live up to its founding principle of liberty and justice for all. Those high aspirations clash with the messy reality that we’ve always been a society of caste and class, where people receive unequal treatment under the law depending on their skin color, their gender or their wealth.

So, what’s a progressive to do on the Fourth of July? If we join in the celebration, does that make us complicit in the injustices that America is still committing? Should we observe patriotic holidays at all, or should we sit them out in protest?

“Your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless”

This isn’t the first time this question has been raised. Frederick Douglass gave a famous speech in 1852 to ask whether Independence Day ought to be celebrated in a country that held human beings in bondage:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass, 1852.

Of course, Douglass’ fondest dream came true. We abolished slavery under color of law. We even had a Black president. On the other hand, we haven’t made nearly as much progress as those accomplishments might have led him to expect. In some ways, we’re sliding backwards.

So, if the purpose of Independence Day is to celebrate the United States as a moral exemplar to the world, with a spotless record of just rule and wise governance, then progressives would be right to reject it as a sham. On the other hand… is there any country that meets that standard?

No one has a flawless record

The United States of America was founded by colonizers who took land by force from indigenous people, and who brought in enslaved people to labor for them. This is undeniably true. However, we’re far from unique in this regard. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others, have their own painful histories relating to the mistreatment of indigenous people.

Europe is a patchwork quilt of war, empire and conquest as old as recorded history—older, in fact. Medieval kings slaughtered each other in Catholic-versus-Protestant wars. The Vikings, whose descendants make up the Scandinavian countries, were once fierce raiders who looted, burned and pillaged. The Romans brought much of Europe under their heel, waging war without mercy to subdue all those who resisted them.

The Celts, an ancient culture now associated only with Ireland and Britain, once had a civilization that spanned the continent. But they were squeezed between the Romans from the south and the Germanic tribes from the north, until they were driven out or wiped out. The few places where Celtic languages are spoken today are their historical last redoubt.

The same goes for the Americas. Although the genocidal evils of colonialism are in no way defensible, the original civilizations of the New World weren’t strictly peaceful either. Before Europeans arrived, they waged war on each other with enthusiasm, sometimes scalping or torturing defeated foes. The stories of Aztec rulers practicing ritual human sacrifice of captives, to name one example, may have been exaggerated but weren’t invented.

The list could go on: warfare in ancient China, war among the ancient empires of Africa, war between the powers of the ancient Near East… anywhere you care to look, you find violence and cruelty. History is a testament to human beings’ inhumanity toward each other.

How can progressives love our country, or any country, given this sorry record?

Not a story told solely by the oppressors

It’s a valid question, and my answer is this: Being a progressive can’t mean that we’re required to hate everything and everyone. Nor do we have to reject anything that falls short of perfection. If we look forward to a better future, we ought to celebrate the moves made in that direction, however small they may be.

What we owe our country isn’t uncritical worship, but nuanced praise for the steps it’s taken up the staircase of moral progress. Democracy, universal suffrage, a written constitution including a bill of rights, freedom of speech, secularism, multiculturalism, welcome to immigrants—the U.S. at its best has embodied these principles, even if we’ve often fallen short of them in practice. Every other country, large or small, has its own achievements it can likewise be proud of.

Besides, America isn’t a story told solely by the oppressors.

It’s also a story of perseverance, of people who’ve survived persecution and thrived in spite of it. It’s a story of people who’ve created art and music and beauty, who’ve cultivated joy in the unlikeliest places, and who’ve been fighting for generations to uphold their rights. It’s women’s rights and civil rights and LGBTQ rights. It’s the Black soldiers who were the first to observe Memorial Day. It’s the new federal holiday of Juneteenth, our “second Independence Day”—a recognition that was decades in the making, thanks to tireless activists like Opal Lee.

America isn’t a story told solely by the oppressors.

We can love our country for what it has the potential to become. In the words of Dr. King, we ought to treat those lofty principles as a promissory note—or, in the words of Amanda Gorman, as a hill we climb.

Patriotism doesn’t have to mean overlooking past wrongs. Instead, it can be a call for America to live up to the promises of liberty it made at its founding. It’s the belief that, in spite of our failings, we can grow wiser and become better than we were.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...