As a kid, I was taught that it was important to be patriotic. No one ever explained to me what that really meant, but from casual observation, I assumed it meant that I should stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and be proud of my country. It seemed simple enough.

At school, I faithfully stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, partly out of a sense of patriotism and partly out of a sense of self-preservation and avoiding Sister Mary Discipline's stick that she swatted us with. When I was old enough I joined Cub Scouts and later, the Boy Scouts. I even earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest award. When I was 18, I joined the Army.

I was never particularly gung-ho. My approach to patriotism was always more of a go-along-to-get-along kind of thing. Watching the reporting of the Vietnam War on television along with the Civil Rights Movement, and later Nixon's resignation in the face of the crimes he committed gave me a healthy dose of skepticism that grew as time went on.

There was something clearly amiss, but I was too young to fully understand just what it was or its depths. Seeing through the smoke and mirrors was a ways off yet.

It wasn't until I was in college that I came to understand the full depth of the rot in America that runs just beneath the surface. It was there that I learned how capitalism manipulates the population and bends its will toward an endless stream of consumption at any cost. It was there that I learned how the capitalists exploit the population for monetary gain. It was there that I finally realized the United States was built on stolen land with slave labor.

The curtain of naive ignorance had been pulled back. I would never be able to un-see what I saw. The United States would never look the same to me.

Photo by Rob Laughter on Unsplash

In the time since then, expressions of patriotism seem more like rooting for your favorite sports team. Instead of wearing an overpriced football jersey, the patriots wear red, white, and blue clothing and put menacing bumper stickers on their vehicles. The word "patriot" has become a dog whistle for a person with conservative political leanings.

I have seen the word "patriot" used in advertising to sell flags, gold coins of twice-impeached presidents, ammunition, clothing, and lots of other consumer goods. George W. Bush proclaimed September 11th as Patriots Day. Great. But who exactly IS a patriot? Merriam-Webster defines it as "one who loves and supports his or her country." Fair enough. But what is THAT? What does that look like?

Perhaps it's worth a look to see what is clearly not patriotism.

Driving around in a black pickup truck with a big American flag hanging on it does not make you a patriot. Nor do the bumper stickers on it that are meant to offend people who feel differently about things than you do. It might make you a spectacle, but it does not make you a patriot.

Watching Fox News does not make you a patriot. It makes you misinformed. Keeping up with current events is important. Watching Fox News will not help you do that.

Standing for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance does not make you a patriot any more than reciting the Our Father makes you a Christian. Patriotism is not the mere mouthing of words, and it is not brow-beating or criticizing those who don't imitate you when you do.

Owning and/or carrying a gun does not make you a patriot any more than owning a stuffed toy does. Patriotism is not about what you own or how macho owning one makes you feel. You might feel tough by owning a gun, but it does not make you a patriot.

Disparaging and threatening people who disagree with you politically and harboring hatred for people whose ethnicity is different from yours does not make you a patriot either. You cannot hate half of your countrymen and call yourself patriotic. You cannot be both a white supremacist and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive.

Engaging in bizarre antigovernment conspiracy theories does not make you a patriot either, no matter how many YouTube videos you've watched or how many fringe web pages you peruse. Cult-like behavior and a sign of mental instability it might be. Patriotism it is not.

Being a Christian does not make you a patriot either, no matter how many times you go to church or how big the crucifix above your headboard is. You can say the rosary until the skin on your fingertips is raw, but you are still not a patriot just because you are a Christian.

The sad and frustrating part, at least as far as I am concerned, is to see all the people who feel the above behaviors constitute patriotism. There is nothing in any of those behaviors that would demonstrate the love of or support for a country. That leaves us with the question that if the above-mentioned things are not patriotism, what is?

To start with, if you want to demonstrate love of country, you have to demonstrate love of your fellow countrymen. You cannot love your country but hate half the people living in it. This requires patriots to accept all Americans as they are, not as we wish they would be. Patriots must be anti-racist and inclusive of all races and ethnicities. It requires them to accept LGBTQ Americans as equals without reservation. If you are going to be a patriot and love your country, you have to love and support the people in it — all of them.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

Patriots are environmentalists. If you love your country, you would not want to see its water, soil, and air become polluted. You would stand firm against those who would despoil our natural resources for profit. You would applaud the efforts to integrate and expand our use of wind and solar power and would support the expansion of electric cars. You would support strong environmental standards and the enforcement of them.

Patriots accept and respect religious differences between people and accept the separation of church and state. They know they are free to express their religion and live by its code, and that others are also free to express their religion and live by their code. Patriots do not attempt to have their religion codified in our nation's laws or to limit the religious expressions of others. So too they respect those who have no religious affiliation or religious beliefs.

Patriots pursue peace. Chinese general Sun Tsu wrote in his book "The Art of War" that the wise warrior avoids the battle, but instead subdues his opponent without fighting by "seizing something dear to your enemy; then he will be amenable to your will." Patriots use diplomacy to avert conflict. Patriots use strategy in foreign relations, not intimidation and brute force. They do not pursue a Pax Americana.

Patriots see themselves as global citizens first, as members of the global community of which the United States is a small part. They understand that the air and water are shared resources and do not stop at a nation's borders. They understand that all people share a common humanity. They understand that war is a last resort when all else has failed and its consequences can be catastrophic even to the victor.

As the national conversation continues regarding what constitutes patriotism, we must reject the divisive nature of our old definitions, and instead reach out to our fellow beings to find the community that allows for all to thrive.