One of the benefits of traveling outside of one’s comfort zone is the broadening of one’s thinking about the world and one’s place in it. I am reminded of that truth every time I am lucky enough to travel. On our recent vacation I was reminded again and again that, despite all we hear and read about that is wrong with the world, the world is still essentially a really good place, with really good and decent people simply trying to make their way in life.
I think one of the gravest dangers we face today is the hyper-yet-hollow patriotism that is cloaked in the so-called Christian garment of self righteousness.
Take, for example, the phrase, “God bless America.” What exactly does it mean to say “God bless America?” Actually, the phrase is from a very famous song by that name. But, do you know the history of the song?
The original version was written by composer Irving Berlin during World War I, in 1918, and revised/updated in 1938, the eve of World War II. Kate Smith is credited with the most famous recording of the song, and it became her signature song.
Woodie Guthrie criticized the song and, in response, wrote “This Land is Your Land.” The Ku Klux Klan, a prominent anti-Semitic Christian sect rejected the song because it was written by a Jewish immigrant.
Irving Berlin gave his royalties from the song to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations in New York City. The manuscripts of the song show that it evolved from the theme of victory to the theme of peace. The manuscripts are in the Library of Congress.
The song is in the form of a prayer. The little known opening lyrics begin with, “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/ Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free/ Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”
The song was sung during the Civil Rights Movement and at labor rallies. Franklin Roosevelt claimed it as his campaign song. The Philadelphia Flyer hockey team had it sung often as a “good luck” charm during their Stanley Cup winning season of 1974.
“God Bless America” is sung at all kinds of sporting events now, most notably it rose in use during the Vietnam Era, and as a response to 9/11. My Rotary Club sings it almost every Thursday at our luncheon meeting.
If we think of it as a prayer, the words take on a special meaning:
“God, bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her through the night with the light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam: God, bless America, my home sweet home. God bless America, my home sweet home.”
Next Thursday is the National Day of Prayer. God Bless America just might be sung a lot on that day. We will be holding a prayer service that evening, at 6 p.m. in our Olive Street Center. Our National Day of Prayer service is an Interfaith Service, recognizing the strength of unity we Americans have because of our diversity. I just believe that all Americans ought to be able to gather together to pray for our nation, the land that we love, our home sweet home.
A home where a Jewish immigrant can write a song that is sung by millions of Christians, a song sung by Americans of all faiths. Or maybe no faith preference at all. And our prayer will hopefully rise up that day with the affirmation that our national motto, E pluribus unum really still means something. Especially now.
Out of many, one.
The Rev. Ron Griffen is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Centro.