In C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, Lewis considers the typical objects of human affection. Interestingly, he details love of country as both a good and bad expression of love. To Lewis, the deciding factor in the morality of this love is one’s view of history. As he notes, many people tend to romanticize the past in order to promote or justify actions in the present – often as examples of noble deeds, worthy of emulation. The historical profession, however, debunks these “visions of the past,” leading to two negative responses: 1.) People fall into disillusioned cynicism or 2.) They continue their romanticism with a “voluntary shutting of the eyes.”
Yet, Lewis believes there is another way to reconcile true history with a romanticized history:
I think it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up. The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious systematic historical study. The stories are best when they are handed on and accepted as stories. I do not mean by this that they should be handed on as mere fictions (some of them are after all true). But the emphasis should be on the tale as such, on the picture which fires the imagination, the example that strengthens the will. The schoolboy who hears them should dimly feel – though of course he cannot put it into words – that he is hearing “saga.” Let him be thrilled – preferably “out of school” – by the “Deeds that won the Empire”; but the less we mix this up with his “history lessons” or mistake it for a serious analysis – worse still, a justification – of imperial policy, the better. … What seems to me poisonous, what breeds a type of patriotism that is pernicious if it lasts but not likely to last long in an educated adult, is the perfectly serious indoctrination of the young in knowably false or biased history – the heroic legend drably disguised as text-book fact. With this creeps in the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their own heroes; perhaps even the belief – surely it is very bad biology – that we can literally “inherit” a tradition. And these almost inevitably lead on to a third thing that is sometimes called patriotism. … a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.
American evangelical Christians, most of whom hold Lewis in high esteem, should carefully consider his words. While there may be personal benefits to reflecting upon stories of the past (such as the “steadfast” faith of early Pilgrims), there is great danger in teaching “saga” as true history (such as suggesting that God favors America). Lewis brilliantly reminds us, however, that our attitude towards history is not so far removed from the attitude of our hearts.