Guest blog by Robert C. Freeman, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Strike up the band, fire up the grill, and get to your favorite fireworks show. This month American Latter-day Saints will join the rest of the nation in celebrating the birth of the United States. For the past fifteen years, I have been involved in collecting stories of Church members who have served in the military (Click here to learn more: www.saintsatwar.org).
Latter-day Saints have a long history of patriotism to their individual countries, including the United States. Sentiments of loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution were espoused by Joseph Smith himself. He said, “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights. The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [SLC: Deseret Book, 1976], 326). The Prophet’s perception of the Constitution’s need to be broader is insightful when one considers that he died well before the addition of such crucial constitutional additions as the civil rights amendments (thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen) and the nineteenth amendment, which extended the right to vote to women.
Today, American Latter-day Saints are as red, white, and blue as ever. Brigham Young University’s hometown of Provo boasts one of this nation’s biggest Fourth of July celebrations—the Freedom Festival. Of course, the influence of the Church stretches across the earth, which prompts us to consider some important questions—for example, what does patriotism mean in view of the global church? Certainly, we are obliged to maintain a proper perspective on patriotism. We celebrate because this is the land of our fathers and the land for our children. We embrace all that is good about our country and hope to make a difference in matters of freedom both at home and abroad. We espouse the principles of liberty and equality anywhere they are under attack.
Several decades ago, at the time of the bicentennial of the founding of America, President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the militant tendencies of modern mankind: “We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching” (“The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks also warned of other risks of overzealous patriots when he said, “Love of country is surely a strength, but carried to excess it can become the cause of spiritual downfall. There are some citizens whose patriotism is so intense and so all-consuming that it seems to override every other responsibility, including family and Church” (“Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, October 1994, 17).
Such teachings remind us of the need to refine our patriotism to ensure it is genuine and within the Lord’s bounds. True patriotism brings honor upon any nation in which freedom and liberty are embraced. Such liberties are needed in order for the kingdom of God to flourish among the Lord’s people. There is much to be celebrated about our blessed country and other countries that strive for freedom. Let the fireworks begin!