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The Big Question: Why are so many Americans so patriotic?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

To an outsider, it can appear that Americans are stridently patriotic. is that so - and why does it seem like it?

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Statue of Roosevelt with US flag Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

As the United States geared up for the presidential election in November, the two main political parties boasted that their candidate truly embodies American values. For both parties, flag-waving patriotism is at the heart of their message.

But what does American patriotism mean in a country built on immigration? What does it mean to be an American patriot - particularly after September the 11th and the war in Iraq. For the Big Question, Jean Snedegar asks why her fellow Americans are so patriotic.

Jean Snedegar "I pledge allegiance to the flag…" At the start of every school day, children in 35 out of the 50 states of America recite the pledge of allegiance. It was written in 1892 by a Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in America. Did you know that Bellamy was a Christian socialist who was inspired by the values of the French Revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity?

What does the pledge mean to Americans? A class of six year-olds tell the Big Question they say it "because it makes god happy", "so America can be good" and "for our soldiers, it helps them fight for our country." And in a discussion with adults in her home town of Elkins, West Virginia, Jean hears how it engenders a sense of bonding and belonging. "I felt it was my duty to be willing to give my life for my country… "; "Just the promise of freedom, freedom to worship, to be who you are..."; "I am proud of the basic good intentions of the American people, wanting to be a leader." "For me to be a patriot is to take advantage of the opportunities, not just to talk about them but to be part of them - to vote, to march on Washington." People from different sides of the political spectrum might describe themselves as patriotic, but the things they value and the way they express that patriotism will be different.

A patriotic house What about the American flags flown on so many homes and cars? "It has no connection with loving your country or patriotism. It was just something to prove you are on the right side." "There is a bonding aspect to flying your symbol… because we are not just of one ethnic background, or country of origin."

That is a point picked up by historian, Dr Alan Kraut at American University in Washington DC. "Being American is not always something you are born into. People have come here and adopted their identity, adopted the concept of being American. The fact that being an American for so many of us is a choice enhances the possibility of real patriotism: "you love the thing you chose."

But Americans haven't always been so patriotic. Dr Kraut points to the Mexican War in the nineteenth century (labelled a war in defence of slavery by anti-slavery reformers), the Civil War that saw the country divided and almost destroyed, and in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War. "But", says Dr Kraut, "Voicing dissent is as American as Apple Pie."

From a sociological perspective, are Americans more patriotic than other nations? Tom Cushman, professor of sociology at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, says this may be a particularly patriotic time for Americans, but patriotism can be found anywhere. "Maybe it is not seen all the time, but it is there to come out when bad things happen, when a country is in difficulties." What scares many people now though is when they see "particularly strong expressions of it tied to religion, tied to a messianic vision of America the Beautiful, that will bring freedom and liberty to everyone. When patriotism gets tied to military force or religion, that's what gets people suspicious."

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 4th September 2004

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