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Love, American Style
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Love, American Style

A healthy republic, like a family, is built on love—for the nation, and for our fellow citizens.

When my father lay dying, he confessed to me that in the years after my mother died, he would sometimes stop by her still-intact vanity in their bathroom to smell her perfume. 

When the hurt of missing her was heavy in his heart, he would pick up the bottle to let the feelings come flooding back in. After more than 50 year together, he knew that he would never be able to let her go. While still very happy and active in the handful of years he lived as a widower, he would tell us that he wasn’t mourning, because mourning is something that ends. He was grieving the loss of his sweetheart, as knew he would every day of his life.

In the almost decade since he told me that, I find that’s increasingly how I think of him; there alone in the shockingly pink bathroom she had designed, a bottle of her perfume held up to his nose, rolling back through their years together and a love that changed the world. 

And I mean that. Their love produced  four children who have gone on to guide two more generations. The love that began as the improbable union of a divorced, single mother and a young executive seven decades ago is there in every embrace and instruction I give my sons, and it still will be for them and their own children one day. My parents’ love also provided a powerful example to the people they met along the way —many of whom had never known that marriage and family life could be tender and adoring in the way that John and Joan Stirewalt did it. I know of many families that were saved and repaired that way. 

My father would have told you that he had no choice but to marry my mother, as captivated by her as he was. But they did choose. Their choice was to give in to that feeling all the way, and, side by side, step into the world and the consequences—good and bad, challenging and delightful—that would follow. They were devoted to each other, yes, but also to the idea of their instant family and its mission to raise kids in a joyful, loving way. My dad would often remind me that life is “an adventure to be lived, not a mystery to be solved.” He and my mom took that plunge together and never looked back, even when life delivered serious troubles, even beyond death and into grief. 

I’m thinking very much of my dad and that perfume bottle these days as I observe life in an America that seems to be forgetting how to love—our country, and certainly each other. The left and right can seem to agree only that the United States is a disaster, with one side certain that we never should have been created in the first place, and the other angry at the loss of a way of life that never really existed. The disdain and casual denigrations I hear about my country break my heart. In the endless quest to obtain and keep power, progressives and nationalists exaggerate our flaws and preach despair about our future. If they can convince people that we are some kind of failed state, perhaps then the masses will give their side the authority they crave.

These anti-American voices are self-affirming. The contempt that many progressives show for the American project and our proud and flawed history is proof for the apocalyptical right that the nation is being pulled down from within. The deadly rage of the nationalist right, on the other hand, gives progressives the proof they want that they are already in a civil war. The declining patriotism at both ends of the continuum has created an atmosphere in which decency and restraint are viewed as vices. 

A healthy republic, like a family, is built on love. Love for the nation, yes—my country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing—but also love for our fellow citizens—land of the noble free, thy name I love. For a republic to work, its people must commit to the project out of love, not treat citizenship as some kind of quid pro quo arrangement. We can certainly criticize something we love, and Lord knows we can be frustrated by and disappointed in the people we love. But the essential component of a healthy nation is that those things happen inside the space made by the initial decision to surrender to that feeling of love. Outside of that, criticisms are just attacks and about as appetizing as a bowl of old tapioca pudding.

Our common cause is a republic of liberty and justice. Our common land is one of beauty and bounty. If we love those things, then we ought to love America. And if we love America, then we ought to love Americans.

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Chris Stirewalt

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.