Patriotism, President Obama, and the Post-Authentic Condition
Acton Institute Powerblog

Patriotism, President Obama, and the Post-Authentic Condition

Authenticity1Last week former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani set off a firestorm of debate and criticism by openly questioning whether President Obama “loves America.”

I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

It would be easy to completely dismiss Giuliani’s comments as dumb, uncharitable, and partisan because the comment was dumb, uncharitable, and partisan. But I believe the mayor has an intuitive sense about something that he can’t articulate, and probably doesn’t understand.

The reality is that Obama and Giuliani both love America. Obama and Giuliani are both patriots. Yet their idea of what love of country means and what patriotism requires of them are likely to be significantly different. To understand this difference let’s look back to a comment from 2007.

As candidate for president in 2007, Barack Obama was questioned about why he did not wear a flag pin on his lapel. His explanation was that he had done so once but he believed it had become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.

Obama wasn’t just saying the pins had become a cliché; he was saying he no longer wore the pins because they are no longer—at least for him—authentic symbols of patriotism. In other words, the reason Obama was refusing to wear the pin on his chest was not that he wasn’t patriotic, but because he was “post-authentic.”

This does not mean, of course, that Obama does not have an authentic love for his country or that his patriotism is not authentic. Post-authentic means something quite different.

Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. An “authentic” patriotism is old school patriotism—unashamed, unapologetic, and mixed with sentimentality and a bit of nostalgia. For instance, someone like Rudy Giuliani might wear a flag lapel pin because he believes the symbol is “authentic” and represents his love of country. He’s believes the symbol accurately represents the origins and intentions of an undiluted form of patriotism that is likely rooted in American exceptionalism. His intention in wearing the symbol would be to convey a sincere (i.e., non-ironic) expression of patriotism. The symbol authentically represents his authentic feelings.

Someone who is post-authentic would wear (or not wear) the pin for a quite different reason. Although post-authentic is not inherently ironic, it does share some characteristics of “hipster irony.” Hipster irony is a self-awareness of one’s behavior “insofar as that behavior is incongruent with what is expected and what actually occurs.” For the ironic hipster, wearing a flag pin would be communicating, “Isn’t it ironic that someone as cool as me would wear such a lame symbol?”

In contrast, the post-authentic person is also painfully self-aware of what they are communicating, but unlike the ironist, they wear the symbol to be congruent with the intended meaning. However, they are uncomfortable with the meanings of the signified concepts as commonly held. They do want the symbols to be authentic but only after the symbol has been recalibrated, reestablished, and recast into a symbol of their ideal vision for America.

While not all progressives are post-authentic, and the post authentic condition affects more than progressives, there is extensive overlap between the two categories. As Jonah Goldberg recently wrote,

Patriotism for progressives has always been deeply bound up in the role of government and the cause of reform. That’s fine, to a certain extent. But underlying it is the assumption that America as it exists is a problem that needs to be fixed, if not “fundamentally transformed.” And, let’s be honest about it, there were times when progressives had the better part of the argument. But, culturally and psychologically, what endures is the pious progressive conviction that the government is better than the people it serves, at least when the right people are running it — and that the job of progressives is to bring the bitter clingers up to the government’s ideals, as best they can.

This gets at the heart of what it means to be post-authentic. Those who are post-authentic can have a genuine (and authentic) affection, love, and respect for their family, country, or other institution while thinking that to deserve that affection, love, and respect the institution must radically change or, at a minimum, make a substantive shift toward their respective vision.

It’s the difference between a man who authentically loves a woman because of who she is and who she was in the past and a woman who loves a man because she knows she can change him to fit her vision of what he can be in the future.

For the post-authentic, the quest for this type of earned authenticity also becomes a purpose unto itself. This is especially noticeable in the movement of progressive Christians, especially progressive evangelicals, to change the church and it’s relationship to secular (i.e., progressive) culture. Several years ago when it was still called the Emerging Church movement, theologian Scot McKnight wrote:

There is much talk among the emerging folk about “authenticity‚” and sometimes one gets the impression that the Emerging Movement has a corner on authenticity: such a claim, if it is made, is inconsistent with its central affirmation that no one is completely authentic and no movement is completely authentic. But, striving for such transcends, so we believe, what is often on display in many churches in the world.

The prefix “post” (after) in post-authentic is this constant “striving” for a more genuine genuineness. The authentic is a condition of truthfulness and sincerity. The post-authentic is a condition of truthfulness and sincerity—but with an asterisk. The WWII vet wears the flag pin as an authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country.” Obama once chose to not wear the pin as a post-authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country, but I have some conditions . . . . ”

There are positive and negative aspects to both the authentic and the post-authentic expressions of faith and patriotism. Both say “I love my country, therefore I want it to change for the better.” The key difference is that the authentic believes the past (e.g., tradition and what has proved worthwhile) is the primary guide to formulating their vision of the future while the post-authentic looks within and to their peers for what should be done. The authentic is cautious and careful because the past has provided us with much that needs preserving, while the post-authentic is bold and radical because they believe change cannot come fast enough. The authentic and the post-authentic are the emotional connection to institutions that align with what Thomas Sowell describes as the two basic visions, the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions.

That is why we conservatives are often tempted to say that progressives don’t “love” America or that they are “abandoning” the Christian faith. What it really happening, though, is that the post-authentic condition is leading them to create an America that we could no longer love and a version of Christianity that we would be forced to abandon since it has no true connection to the orthodox faith of Scripture and the Christian tradition.

The post-authentic condition is here to stay and is becoming increasingly dominant in elite culture. Those of us who choose to side with “authentic” patriotism and “authentic” religious faith are going to be pressed to concede or be dismissed as old-fashioned, outdated, or even hopelessly backwards bigots. We’re going to have to learn to explain and defend our differences in ways that present our authentic vision in a compelling way. We can’t just say that those who disagree don’t love their country or church. We have to make the case for why they should love the country and church the same way and for the same reasons that we do.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).