Finding my own patriotism in the turmoil of America in 2018 | Ronnie Polaneczky

A woman has a flag stuck in her hair bun during Philadelphia's Celebration of Freedom ceremony at Independence Hall July 4, 2016.

Last week, my editor dispatched some reporters to the streets to ask Philadelphians, “When was the last time you felt patriotic?”

I was glad they didn’t ask me for an answer. I’d be too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t felt patriotic since 9/11, when the shattered citizens of this country rushed to buy American flags in such numbers, flag makers could barely keep up with the demand.

Camera icon BONNIE WELLER
After 9/11, Philadelphians bought flags by the dozens. In this 2001 photo, an employee buys 207 flags from Humphrys Flag Co. for his co-workers.

I remember writing about how my friend Joe’s distinctive flags (their handles were fancy) were stolen right out of his front yard. Later, when he saw them in some guy’s planter a few blocks away, he just shrugged.

“I’m glad they’re getting good use,” he said, instantly forgiving the thief.

That’s how strong our feelings of connection were. We were so thoroughly united in sorrow, it was easy to forget the differences that usually fracture us. We weren’t rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, black or white, urban, suburban or rural. We were Americans, and we shared one broken, heavy heart.

Now, I feel like we’re united in nothing but a belief about how divided we are. It doesn’t make me feel very patriotic.

Instead, I feel heartsick by the separation of children from their parents at the country’s border.

By the need for school kids — hundreds of thousands of them — to march for their lives in the wake of yet another classroom slaughter.

By the tears and rage of American citizens who must take a knee or take to the streets to tell the world that Black Lives Matter.

By the sickening prevalence of #MeToo.

Last weekend, feeling desperate, I re-read the Declaration of Independence, which I hadn’t eyeballed since high school. I’d totally forgotten how the document — once you get past the part about self-evident truths  — is basically a primal scream against the injustices heaped upon the colonies by King George III.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH
The only known copy of the Declaration of Independence printed on vellum by John Dunlap is now on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution.

Its 1,317 words offered no game plan, no eight-point outline for how this mess of a new country would organize or govern itself. Its only goal was to declare that the colonies were mad as hell and not gonna take it any more.

The beauty of our original patriots, I thought as I read the declaration, was that they were brave enough to take a righteous stand before knowing fully what the fallout would be.

And suddenly, the unsettling protests, marches and screeds of recent months looked to me not like evidence of a divided nation but proof of its patriotism.

The kind that loves its country enough to expect better of it and say as much.

“Our forefathers’ debates were as vituperative as ours are now, their fears were just as genuine,” said Neil Ronk, senior guide at historic Christ Church in Old City, where I stopped by on Sunday for its annual Celebration of Independence Day during the regular church service.

The problem, he said, is that when society denigrates the study of history, as ours has for years, “everything looks like it’s happening for the first time.

“But when you walk into this place and you know it has been here since 1695, and that we’ve worked through our own painful disagreements [some members were slave owners] and yet we we’re still here,” he said, “you really get a sense that America’s history is about the victory of optimism over pessimism.”

Camera icon RONNIE POLANECZKY
Historian Neil Ronk, senior guide at Christ Church.

But we have much work to do, said Christ Church Rector the Rev. Timothy Safford during his sermon: The Declaration of Independence was a global proclamation to all humankind that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a right for all.

“It is not a set of privileges only for those who live in this nation,” he said. And it is manifest in Jesus’ command that we love everyone, even our enemies.

“Love is at the heart of the faith we seek to live in our own lives,” he said. It demands that we “call the culture around us – our civil society, systems and institutions — to that higher place; to resist, criticize, advocate, vote, protest and march. If our leaders lose their way, we must say, ‘We live to a higher vision and calling, even in our citizenship.’”

Sounds like patriotism to me.