Patriotism is love of country, and it can be a very positive force. All countries benefit when their people feel a sense of belonging and believe in their country’s goodness. But as our nation becomes more polarized and patriotism is used by some as a litmus test to judge and quickly condemn others, it makes sense to step back and ask ourselves: Has patriotism today lost its way?

Let’s start with the basics. We learn from Socrates in the “Republic” (and it is confirmed by our experience) that no country is just, altogether good. It’s just a fact that human beings cannot create perfection. Perhaps we can imagine what a just country would be, but we cannot make it happen. Our reason is flawed. We are all influenced by passion and prejudice. We can do our best, and sometimes we can do very well, but we are limited in what we can accomplish.

This means that our love of country should always be tempered by our knowledge that what we love is flawed. And this means that we should never love our country unconditionally. That is why it makes no sense to say, “My Country, Right or Wrong,” or “Love it or Leave it!” In fact, I believe that our love is strengthened when we acknowledge our country’s flaws and when we remain open to the need that every country has for change and improvement.

When we close our eyes to the fact that our country is flawed, patriotism can turn nasty. It can become defensive and angry. It can lead to the desire to strike out at, to harm, those who dare to question our vision of the country. This can turn what should be a healthy patriotism into a toxic force.

Abraham Lincoln taught us in the Gettysburg Address that our country was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Liberty and equality. America was founded on these two lofty principles, which all Americans can be proud. But at the same time, liberty and equality were not extended to all. Our Founders proclaimed beautiful goals, but they did not, could not, put those principles fully into practice. Our history is one of constant struggle — sometimes forward and sometimes backward — of a debate between principle and practice.

We have no reason to walk around feeling ashamed of our flawed history. There is no reason for us to hate ourselves for being human. But at the same time, we dishonor the great principles upon which our country was founded by ignoring or denying those flaws, which have harmed many and continue to do so.

In other words, a healthy patriotism includes acknowledging the limitations of the country we love. In fact, our love of country can be even stronger when we combine it with a constant desire to challenge the country to live up to its principles. 

Think of what we value in good friends. Isn’t it true that our best friends are the ones who tell us when we have done something wrong? None of us wants our friends to tell us how wonderful we are, even when it isn’t true. And when we are being self-destructive, don’t we want our friends to call us out to tell us to change? We want honesty from our friends. Patriotism at its best is the same. It thrives when it is challenged because the challenges offer opportunities for improvement.

True patriots ought to welcome those who protest particular political leaders (either Joe Biden or Donald Trump), a particular party (either Democrats or Republicans), or a particular policy (border wall or no border wall). We should welcome those who “take a knee” when our national anthem is playing. They aren’t saying they hate America; they are reminding us of who we are. Healthy patriotism includes disagreement and protest.

In two years, we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, which first proclaimed the principles of liberty and equality as the foundation of our country. Will we be closer to or farther away from our dream of realizing those principles then? We need patriots today who will challenge us to live up to those principles and call us out when we stray from them.

My father taught me to do all things in moderation. He was a wise man, and I am grateful for this lesson. Moderation is good when it comes to food, drink and even patriotism. Everything can be overdone.