Questioning Obama's or McCain's service to country is like asking if they love their wives.
It's as easy as grilling hot dogs to revel in Fourth of July rituals. Fireworks, parades, flags, and picnics help bind Americans. But the holiday is also a time for each person to recall the good in the nation's past – and renew faith in the good still to come. That private patriotism is hard to show, as Barack Obama and even war hero John McCain have learned.
In a contest starting to be laced with personal attacks, each man's past service to country has come under the rocket's red glare of a media onslaught.
This week, a former general and aide to Mr. Obama said Mr. Mc-Cain's fighter-jet downing in Vietnam is not a credential for the Oval Office. And Obama's devotion to America – as seen in his community organizing and in legislating – has been so challenged that on Monday he gave a 29-minute speech on patriotism – to try to prove to others what he already knew for himself.
Ever since the Revolution, bashing a candidate's love of country has been as common as sparklers on the Fourth. Though unsavory, jabbing someone's patriotism reflects the peculiar origins of a country whose identity was first forged out of Puritan debates over faith and then in the Founders' attempts to unify 13 colonies under Enlightenment ideals.
America's legacy of ideals tinged with faith means patriotism lies in a person's heart, making it difficult to prove. "When we argue about patriotism," Obama said, "we are arguing about who we are as a country."
The deepest root of this patriotism, according to historian George McKenna, lies in a Protestant claim to individual revelation and came to a head early in the Puritan experiment in Massachusetts. When Anne Hutchinson questioned the "inner purity" of Puritan leaders, they banished her. But they then adjusted their theology to say that the leaders, as "visible saints," may be hypocrites, but it is the community as a whole that is holy, with a providential mission.
From then on, leaders have served as jeremiads, reminding Americans that their society is a "city on a hill" – but also one still in need of correction. Those two rally cries spawned competing strains of patriotism.
One tries to unite people around greatness and sacrifice (reflected in McCain's war record and his book, "Faith of My Fathers").
The other extols a society that still falls short to improve itself (as seen in Obama's motto "change" and his book, "Dreams From My Father").
How to reconcile these two types of patriotism?
First, it requires seeing that both approaches rely on a desire to unite the country, even if perceptions differ about America's dark side and over ideals such as liberty and equality. Unity lies in gratitude for both past achievements as well as for what the future may hold.
Second, they both call for a sacrifice in public service, whether it is leading a campaign to rid homes of asbestos (as Obama did in Chicago) or bearing torture as a POW (as McCain did in Vietnam).
Third, while patriotism is seen as public action, it is, like any love, a private commitment. It can't be forced. It can only be enticed.
With those three points in mind, and with two candidates who are eloquent about patriotism, their campaigns just might serve the country well, as patriotism calls for.