In a recent New York Times essay, novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of the excellent Gilead, begins with an evocative question: “What does it mean to love a country?”

It is the pre-eminent question with three weeks left till this most consequential of elections.

What does it mean to love our country?

Robinson describes her feeling for this country as “a deep if sometimes difficult affinity I would call love.”

A deep if sometimes difficult affinity. Do you love your country if you criticize it? Do you love it if you never criticize it? John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” which is a great soundbite but somewhat one-sided. We should ask what our country can do for us — especially when it isn’t doing enough, except for those with great wealth. But the second half of the statement is still on target. Not enough of us ask what we can do for our country.

I would change it to, “Always ask what your country can do for you, and never stop asking what you can do for your country.”

That, it seems to me, is the baseline for loving it. 

Robinson takes this further. Deeper than her “difficult affinity” is “a feeling like a love of family.” 

America is a glorious idea, she says, expressed in glorious language in our founding documents, which profess that “human beings are sacred, therefore equal. We are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it.”

If we let it, but we do not let it. Our glorious founding words, Robinson adds, “always leave us wanting” because our sense of “family” is too limited. We have an inner circle to whom we willingly, even generously, extend our blessings — to relatives, friends and a wider community. We also have an outer circle where, for too many Americans, generosity becomes conditional, and those who fall outside “familial” boundaries are neglected or rejected, sometimes unknowingly, or in the case of Trump and his supporters, willfully.

Equality, our founding principle, Robinson says, “is a progressive force, constantly and necessarily exposing our failures and showing us new paths forward.”

What does it mean at this moment to love our country? Finding that path forward is one way, especially when we have a leader who is determined to take us backward. As one observer on NPR put it last weekend, sometimes progress is not moving forward but stopping our slide backward. Loving our country, then, means voting for the candidate who is most likely to stop our backsliding and may even begin to move us ahead again. 

For some who dislike Trump, though, that is a difficult step. In this election, it means voting against the party they have always voted for and finding the courage to vote for the party with which they often disagree. It means doing something personally difficult — rising above party loyalty when necessary in order to come to the aid of your country and countrymen. If not now, when?

We have learned the hard way that our system of checks and balances, the separation of powers, which we were taught would always safeguard democracy is all-too-easily subverted, as has been demonstrated these past four years.

Do the freedoms you claim to revere include the freedom to stand idly by when your country is bleeding, when its people are suffering?

You can profess devotion to the flag or recite the pledge of allegiance loudly or puff up with pride when you hear the national anthem, but you can’t say you love your country when that country is sick and the person in charge is making it sicker and you can’t bring yourself to vote for “the other side” just once in order to reverse its downward spiral.

What difficult thing have you done to love your country, much less save it? Have you defended it with the same ferocity as those who are actively harming it?

If you can’t do something uncomfortable, something that goes against your grain in order to save your country, like voting for Joe Biden this Nov. 3, well, democracy grants you that privilege.

Democracy, in fact, makes few demands of us. We can be crappy citizens if we want. Democracy coddles those who don’t deserve it. Millions of us don’t even bother to vote. And millions more are mindless slaves to their respective ideologies. But democracy does place one demand on us. It leaves its very existence entirely in our hands. It asks if we’ve got what it takes to keep this precious gift alive, and if we don’t, it dies without a whimper. 

Robinson, on the other hand, puts it differently. “Democracy,” she concludes, “is the great instrument of human advancement. 

“We have no right to fail it.” 

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