When I was a kid, the nightly news was filled with images of the Vietnam War and the ugly protests against the war that were raging around our country. Although the pictures were disturbing, I would sit and watch the evening news with my dad any chance I got because I enjoyed the way my father would explain things to me. It made me proud that he thought I could understand “grown-up” issues.
Dad was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War, a Nixon voter, a law-and-order guy who had little patience with “flower children” or the anti-authority crowd. His opinions were shared widely in my hometown of Abilene, Texas, which was proud of its large Air Force base and three conservative Christian colleges. I don’t remember hearing anyone even mildly object to the war in Vietnam, but I do remember the look on my best friend’s face when her father returned from fighting there.
When I was around nine or ten, my grandmother came for a visit and proudly presented my dad with a bumper sticker adorned with a U.S. flag and the words “Love It or Leave It.” He thanked her and tucked the sticker in his desk drawer. I visited that drawer for weeks, pulling out the sticker that seemed to so eloquently express what everybody I knew was saying and feeling. I was impatient for Daddy to place it on our car so everyone could see our patriotism.
One day, I actually carried the bumper sticker to my dad, assuming he had simply forgotten about it. “When are you going to put this on the car?” To my surprise, he shook his head and said, “Never.”
“That’s not the way America works,” he told me. “You don’t have to leave because you disagree with the way things are going. Those people who are protesting are still Americans, and they love their country too.”
It was a quiet, private moment in a time of loud, public arguments, and I’ve never forgotten it. That day I learned that when we disagree over policies and politics and culture, it’s not “us” versus “them.” We don’t force out anyone who has different opinions or different agendas. We never have to “take our country back” from the “other side” because we are all part of this country.
I remembered Daddy and that bumper sticker yesterday when NFL players chose various postures during the pre-game national anthem. I was dismayed to open my social media feeds and read the angry comments from people who both opposed and supported the players. I could almost hear my father saying to me, “That’s not how America works.”
There has never been a time in the history of our country when every citizen stood in perfect agreement on every issue. You don’t have to agree with a fellow American’s opinion in order to respect their rights to publicly disagree with public policies. Allowing dissent — even dissent you find in poor taste — is not weak or unpatriotic. It is American.