Just What Does Patriotism Mean in America? Issue Enters Into Campaign

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Dictionaries define patriotism as love and loyalty to one's country. For Americans, patriotism can mean many things -- for example, celebrating the Fourth of July, Independence Day.

Yet Americans often debate the idea of patriotism. Political scientist Neil Diamant at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania says this is because there is no clear agreement on what it means.

Some, he says, believe patriotism involves service or sacrifice. But there is no required national service. And the last military draft ended thirty-five years ago this month.

Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has led two studies of national identity and pride. Both involved between twenty and thirty countries. Both studies rated Americans first or tied for first place in different measures of national pride.

Tom Smith says patriotism, however, is often discussed more during American presidential campaigns, especially in wartime.

In the current campaign, Barack Obama has had his patriotism questioned by some people. The expected Democratic Party nominee says that at times this has been a result of his own "carelessness." But more often, he says, it has resulted from what he called "the desire by some to score political points" and raise fears about him.

Senator Obama discussed patriotism in a speech Monday in Independence, Missouri. He said dissent does not make one unpatriotic and that "the question of who is, or is not, a patriot all too often poisons our political debates."

At the same time, he rejected a comment from one of his supporters about John McCain. Retired Army general Wesley Clark said he did not think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

Senator Obama said he will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign, and will not stand by when others question his.

Some, for example, have criticized his position on wearing an American flag pin. Like many public officials he wore one after the terrorist attacks of two thousand one. But he said he stopped wearing one because it became a "substitute" for "true patriotism." Lately, the Illinois senator has been seen wearing a flag pin more often.

The Republican Party's expected nominee does not always wear one either. But ninety percent of registered voters in a study (CNN poll) released this week described John McCain as patriotic. The Arizona senator was a Navy pilot and Vietnam War prisoner.

By comparison, one-fourth said Barack Obama lacks patriotism. But that same study showed him five points ahead of John McCain among registered voters nationwide. It was too narrow, though, to represent a clear lead for the election in November.

American history has other examples of a presidential candidate's patriotism being questioned. In the election of eighteen hundred, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams accused each other of being unpatriotic.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English, written by Brianna Blake. I'm Steve Ember.