WASHINGTON — If you asked my true religion, I would not answer anything practiced in a church, synagogue or mosque. My real religion is America, and I feel privileged that, among the world's 7 billion people, I am one of the roughly 300 million lucky enough to be an American. This transcends mere patriotism. I believe in what this country stands for, even though I acknowledge its limits and failures. As individuals, we are no better than most (selfishness and prejudice having survived). As a society, we have often violated our loftiest ideals (starting with the acceptance of slavery in 1787). Our loud insistence of "exceptionalism" offends millions of non-Americans, who find us exceptional only in our relentless boasting.
But these caveats do not dim my love of country. I am still stirred by "The Star-Spangled Banner." I think our messy mixture of democratic traditions, respect for the individual and economic dynamism commands a unique place in human history. In most societies, people are marked by where they were born, their ethnic heritage or religious conviction. In the United States, these are secondary. Americans' self-identity springs from the beliefs on which this country was founded, including the belief that no one is automatically better than anyone else simply by virtue of birth.
Our reverence for these ideals remains a touchstone. A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of "The National Hand-Book of American Progress," published in 1876 and edited by Erastus Otis Haven, a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church and the second president of the University of Michigan. Haven does laud economic achievements. The telegraph, introduced in 1844, had spawned a network of 75,137 miles. But mostly, Haven celebrates our ideals and political institutions, which — with the tragic exception of the Civil War — had settled conflicts peacefully. His collected documents were mostly political: the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution; Washington's Farewell Address; Lincoln's two Inaugurals and the Emancipation Proclamation.
This intense love of country defines Americans and, compared to many, sets us apart. A 2004 study of 33 countries by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago ranked the United States first in national pride. You might think that this powerful allegiance — what I and no doubt millions of others call a religion — would bring us together. Often it does. But on this July Fourth, we face a disturbing paradox: Our love of country increasingly divides us.
Our national debates now transcend disagreements over this or that spending program or tax and have become — in the minds of the combatants — a climactic struggle for the nature and soul of America. One side is allegedly bent on inserting government into every aspect of our lives and suffocating individual responsibility and effort. The other is supposedly beholden to the rich, committed to "survival of the fittest" and indifferent to everyone else.
If you believe these are the stakes — and that defeat would extinguish the most valuable and virtuous aspects of America — then the other side is to be despised and demolished. Your very love of country impels you to extremes of rhetoric and belief. It nudges you, increasingly, to hate the other side.
The backdrop to this struggle is longstanding. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, Americans venerate both liberty and equality. Our entire history involves this tension between preserving freedom and promoting equality. If you are defending either, you naturally think that you are the legitimate heir of the country's core beliefs.
In a democracy, de Tocqueville argued, Americans would ultimately favor equality over freedom, because its material benefits are more immediate and tangible. Not so, countered the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. Americans strongly value freedom, far more than do citizens of any other democratic country, he argued.
There's plenty of evidence he is right. A recent Pew poll asked people to pick between "freedom to pursue life's goals without state interference" and the "state guarantees nobody is in need." Americans selected freedom 58 percent to 35 percent. European responses were reversed: Germany's 36 percent to 62 percent was typical. By wide margins compared with Europeans, Americans believe that "success in life" is determined by individual effort and not by outside forces. Yet, in their voting habits, Americans often prefer security.
The inconsistencies and contradictions won't soon vanish. But in today's politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount. Each side, whether "liberal" or "conservative," Republican or Democrat, behaves as if it has a monopoly on historical truth. The fear that the existence of their version of America is threatened sows discord and explains why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.