I don’t Vow To Thee My Country: the difference between patriotism and nationalism

Poppies Tower of London nightThis week a lot of people will sing the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ at Remembrance services. The hymn, which combines the words of a poem by British Diplomat Sir Cecil Spring-Rice with a beautiful tune by Gustav Holst, is enormously popular.  And having been sung at both the wedding and funeral of Princess Diana it has become cherished by many.

But these qualities should not mask its highly dubious lyrics:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

It is telling that these words were written in 1908 before the First World War.  The idea that of promising to show a love for our country which ‘asks no questions’ and undauntedly sacrifices people is highly questionable.  In my view this is not true patriotism.  Rather it too easily lends itself to a nationalism which demands uncritical loyalty and blind obedience and which contributed to the slaughter of the 1914-18 war.

Patriotism and nationalism

George Orwell wrote about the difference between patriotism and nationalism:

 By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Orwell was deeply critical of the injustices and pomposity of his own country, but he helped re-define patriotism through an honest appreciation of Britain’s qualities.  In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ he wrote ‘In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in…the belief influences conduct, national life is different because of them.’  For him, these strengths made the country worth fighting for against the tyranny of Nazism.

The kind of patriotism we need today will combine both appreciation and critique. A good artistic example was Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics. It stands in contrast to the many who delight in a cynical mocking of their own country and who show no appreciation of the freedoms and quality of life we enjoy.

The dying and the dead

At the end of the war, Spring-Rice wrote an additional verse to his poem which is far less jingoistic, but rarely sung:

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

This verse at least reflects something of the terrible reality of loyalty to one’s country in the midst of war. It is a cost and horror which should daunt us.

It is a sentiment which is captured by the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London which I visited last night.  Seeing the vast sweep of red poppies, and hearing the names of the soldiers killed being read out along was powerful and moving.  As a lone bugler played The Last Post, he embodied the words of Spring-Rice’s unused verse as around his feet lay the thousands of flowers representing the dead.

It was understated, haunting and evocative. Powerful and patriotic, but not nationalistic.

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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8 Responses to I don’t Vow To Thee My Country: the difference between patriotism and nationalism

  1. John Bav says:

    And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago
    most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

    Does the second verse soften your feelings about the hymn? I agree with your comments on patriotism/nationalism… but found I could bear the hymn if we sang the second song.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks John – the theology of the hymn is interesting. I think that verse by itself makes sense and could be powerful if set in the context of a call to work for peace and justice. But the problem is that the first verse is so problematic that I think it sets a context which means this verse can be sung as purely other-worldly hope – that faith exists in the heart and somewhere in heaven but is not a movement for peace in the here and now. I think as the hymn stands with the 2 verses I don’t think its coherent – how does the ‘gentleness’ of the kingdom of God combine with ‘asking no questions’ about conflict and battle?

  2. That poem is so deeply typical of its time and the “muscular Christianity” movement. I have to say I prefer Orwell’s definition, but I always was something of a fan. I wonder what he’d make of the state of British patriotism and nationalism today? There is something of a shut down in thought now – it sometimes feels like you mourn in the prescribed way or risk censure and being branded unpatriotic.

    I wish those “muscular Christians” had had more idea what mechanised warfare looked like in reality, a million miles away from war games on the playing fields of Eton or Uppingham (as described in the beginning of “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain).

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Stephanie. The ironic thing of course is that Orwell also went to Eton. He wrote “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.” Yes, I think he is a voice that has so much to bring to today’s discussions – especially his critique of the accumulation of power and wealth combined with his willingness to go against the tribal loyalties of left-wingers of his day.

      • Orwell was never exactly happy there though, always felt like a poor relation, although by many standards his family was hardly poor. He seemed to think a great deal more deeply than many others then or since about why things were and what was likely to happen next so yes, I agree he has a lot to add – as well as some of the best and most straightforward English prose there is.

  3. Gareth says:

    Well written post.

    But it entirely misses the 3rd and most important verse! Which somewhat negates your take on the song.

    The third verse is about the more important country of God’s kingdom of peace.

    “And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
    Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

    I love this hymn because I am a patriot. I would die for my earthly loyalty to my country, but I would not glory in war and in the end my eternal loyalty is to the Kingdom of heaven!

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks for the comment Gareth but I disagree. All theology is done in a context and the whole song is framed in the context of a promise to one’s country. As I commented to John above, I think the verse about heaven could work in a hymn about a commitment to justice and peace but I have tended to reflect on the disconnection between the 2 verses. For me I think the spiritual side of the hymn reads too much as if Christianity fits rather well with military nationalism rather than questioning it. This is what happens when faith becomes individualised into ‘the heart’ or is framed purely in terms of an other-worldly kingdom. This is not what I see Jesus talking about in the gospels.

  4. Pingback: I don’t Vow To Thee My Country: the difference between patriotism and nationalism | miwinther

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