AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Just 39 percent of Americans now say they are “extremely proud” of their nationality, a stunning 52 percent drop from 2004. The best chance of reversing this alarming trend is to embrace what has always inspired patriotism – telling the truth about America’s proud history.
The decline of national pride in America is a decades-long trend, but one major inflection point seems to be the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The late Rush Limbaugh once remarked that while Ronald Reagan viewed the United States as a “shining city on a hill,” Obama “portrays America as a soup kitchen in some dark night in a corner of America that’s very obscure.”
“He’s constantly telling America that bad times are ahead,” Limbaugh continued. For many, it seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Obama’s pessimism about the country and rejection of American Exceptionalism spread beyond the country’s borders. One former Italian diplomat who served during Obama’s presidency told this author that, from the outside, Obama’s tenure seemed to be an “attack” on “American traditional culture.”
“It looked like the White House wanted to humiliate and demean Americans,” he said. “It was hard to watch.”
Another current European diplomat said on the condition of anonymity that they saw Obama’s policies as the legal manifestation of sixties radical Bill Ayers (who was allegedly a mentor of Obama’s at the University of Chicago) stomping on the American Flag.
Obama was especially hostile toward America’s Christian heritage. From small slights like his pointed omission of the word “Creator” from a quotation of the Declaration of Independence at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Gala in 2010 to his ahistorical denunciation of Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2015, Obama sought to undermine this core foundation of America’s identity.
This author spoke at length to eminent historian Dr. Wilfred McClay, currently of Hillsdale College, about both the importance of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and how to restore patriotism in public life.
McClay in 2019 authored The Land of Hope, an authoritative source on American history which, unlike other modern textbooks, explores the good and bad of American history, from the first nomads crossing the Bering Land Bridge to the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
McClay focuses especially on the importance of faith in the early days of the American experiment, and how religious thinking framed the way the founders viewed their new nation.
On the subject of restoring a sense of patriotism in the American people today, Professor McClay said the education system must do a better job of instilling an interest and fondness for America’s past.
“A certain student character makes him or her more likely to want to dive into an exploration of America’s past,” the professor said. “Because the past is so much of what we are and what we have to be grateful for.”
McClay also shared a story about when he taught at Tulane University in New Orleans. When some students said they were unexcited about the American Flag, one girl, a veteran in her 20s, responded: “You do not understand what that flag there represents.”
McClay reflected that military families have a unique ability to grasp the significance of American history because they are willing to sacrifice everything for the ideals upon which the United States was founded. “They are accustomed to the idea that people in the real world give their lives for the country’s sake. Even if they have not lost their life, they could have,” he said.
An understanding of American history also helps people see why certain institutions are so important in the country today, McClay emphasized.
As one example, he pointed to the Mayflower Compact, a revolution in self-government that continues to influence our country’s legal system today. According to the document, the inhabitants of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies agreed to “have a covenant with one another and God” – not a king or monarch. The idea that certain rights are “inalienable” and are bestowed by God alone would become a defining feature of the American experiment in self-government two centuries later.
This fact alone, McClay says, that America’s founders ruled out a hereditary monarchy in favor of a bold venture in self-government that has resulted in the oldest still-active constitution in the world, is remarkable.
American history is also a story of individualism and self-reliance, something that is again unique to this country. “’Mind your own business’ is very American,” McClay said. “We see ourselves as sufficient, but having one another to help out when it is needed.” People, in other words, have the freedom to act as they wish and perform virtuous deeds, as opposed to a nanny state.
The failure of the American education system to teach this value – and in particular the fondness of left-wing academics for entitlements and government handouts – has eroded this core tenet of the American identity, and thus pride in the country.
But despite the dire state of American culture today, McClay emphasized that American history is still the shining city on a hill that Reagan envisioned.
“Just a few years ago, protestors in Hong Kong held the Declaration of Independence high,” he said. It was a clear sign that the story of America’s founding was still a source for hope for oppressed peoples around the world.
Meanwhile, young people in the United States seem to have forgotten most of this history. “We cannot be obsessed with our faults,” McClay said. “We must find a way beyond being condescending of the past, which is one of our worst sins.”
McClay also said he tries to impart to his students how unique America’s history is. He notes that following their revolution, the French replaced the American notion that people are endowed by their “Creator” with certain inalienable rights with the idea that “the nation” bestows rights on its people.
This is another foundational element of the American government and national identity – that certain rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are affirmed by God and God alone, and any government or law which seeks to limit those rights is by definition illegitimate. “It is one of the most glorious aspects of American history,” McClay stresses.
He tells his students that they must be proud and grateful for their heritage in spite of its shortcomings. “You have complaints, fine, so do I,” he says to them, adding that it is their role to enhance American greatness. “I always urge them, do not neglect a glorious past legacy.”
Despite the decline in patriotism seen in America today, McClay is optimistic for the future. “It will be morning in America again,” he says with a smile.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.