God Bless America in Slovakia

I was privileged recently to hear young Americans in Slovakia lead a group singing “God Bless America.” Why that? Why there?

Well, it was “culture night” during the “Free Society” Seminars sponsored by the Faith and Reason Institute (the honorable Robert Royal presiding) that have taken place each summer for the past twenty years in Slovakia.  One of the creative minds behind these seminars was the late Michael Novak, whose family hearkened from Slovakia.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain – remember that? – when the Russian tyranny kept Eastern Europe in its thrall from the end of the Second World until 1989-90, during which time they built a wall in Berlin, sent tanks on multiple occasions into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to quash rebellions, and funded “peace” movements in the U.S. and Europe, which insisted that the United States was the greatest enemy of peace in the world.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was hope that the countries of Eastern Europe formerly under Soviet tyranny might free themselves from Communist totalitarianism and establish stable, free societies.

One challenge they faced was how to import the good things from the West, like free speech, markets, democracy, and freedom of religion, without importing the bad things.  As one man put it: “We want to know how to import the free market without importing (the singer) Madonna.  We want to know how we can get abundant food in the supermarkets without having our daughters dress like whores.”

Yes, that is a challenge.  We haven’t figured that out ourselves, I’m afraid.

But in its essence, this is the question of how you establish a free society without having “freedom” degrade into mere “license,” at which point that freedom becomes self-cannibalizing. Soon the calls for shutting down the opposition begin, and the forces of new tyrannies begin to rear their ugly heads, whether promising beneficent government care for everyone (as long as everyone submits to government control) or the restoration of “order” and a lost “greatness.”

But this brings us back to singing “God Bless America” in Slovakia. Isn’t that too chauvinistic and insensitive to one’s host country?  It might have been, but it was “culture night.”  Students from each country made presentations. The Slovakians did a traditional Slovakian folk dance to traditional Slovakian folk music and then invited everyone to join in. It was a delight.  People laughed even when they got the steps wrong and danced with the sort of joy one imagines the peasants who created these dances must have felt.

The Slovaks had learned these dances as children.  No longer peasants, they continued to keep these old traditions alive – a tradition of which they were obviously and rightly proud.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to share in that pride with them.  I’m an American, but why would I resent that pride?  It seems altogether healthy and a joy to see.


Thus, one imagines it would be heartening enough for Slovakians to hear young Americans singing “God Bless America,” which is not an anthem to American dominance, but a prayer for God’s blessing.  Had the Slovakians followed with a traditional hymn asking for God’s blessing on their land, I would have sung it as happily (although likely even more incompetently) as I danced their traditional Slovakian dance.

When most Americans go to other countries, they eagerly ask local people: “Tell me about your country and region!  What is its history and culture?  What are the traditional foods?  Do you have a local beer?  Do you know traditional music?”  It would be sad to meet a young person who said, “Yes, our parents know a lot of that stuff, but we are embarrassed by it.  In fact, we are embarrassed by our country.”

What would have been painful would be to see a group of young Slovakians embarrassed by being Slovakian. That would have made me no prouder to be American. Rather, the embarrassment would been like the unease one feels when meeting a young person who points to his parents and says: “There are my parents.  I hate them.  I hate my whole family, and my neighborhood is full of disgusting fools and idiots.”

This is not exactly the most pleasant person to be around. Nor are Americans who whine incessantly about their country.

One hopes that more Americans will begin to understand that a healthy love of their country need not be alienating, any more than a healthy Slovakian love of their country alienates me.  Quite the contrary.  It’s so much more pleasant than being around people who hate their country.  A healthy love of one’s own – family, neighborhood, city, country – is always delightful to be around and share.

Fault-finding and complaining rarely make anyone better.  You need not avoid a person’s or country’s faults to love them. And only love has a chance of improving people.

In Pope John Paul II’s final book, Memory and Identity, published in 2005, the year of his death, one finds the reflections of a man who was as “global” as anyone could wish, traveling the world, mastering multiple languages, greeting people from all across the world.  But in that book, you also find the reflections of a man who was deeply steeped in the history and culture of his own Polish homeland.

This didn’t make him any less devoted to other countries. It made him respect those other countries and cultures in their own terms, whereas “internationalists” want everyone in the world to be diverse in exactly the same way. Cities and institutions look more and more alike rather than more and more distinctively expressive of local cultures.  That’s not a “universal” culture; that’s a tragedy for all cultures.

People who can’t love their own country will have a hard time understanding how people from other countries can love theirs.

*Image: Sketch by Joža Uprka, 1901 [Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia]

You may also enjoy:

Michael Novak’s Guidance System Set on “State”

Robert Royal’s What’s Happening to Civil Society?

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.