The America That Is Being Born

 

“Well, it’s a pretty good country,” said the child in our Together Time story. “Its a pretty good country.” And so she decided to wear turquoise, pink and beige as her patriotic colors, instead of red, white and blue.

It was a thoughtful and a tentative kind of allegiance she could pledge to this country, her country that she was just beginning to understand.

Turquoise, pink and beige.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”

How long has it been since you’ve said the pledge? Allegiance…it is a strong word. How many of you would be comfortable “pledging allegiance” today?

Those who wish to can feel free to join me. I have been practicing getting through this and I criticize no one who elects not to take part.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Quite a few things to stumble over. There is that “under God” piece. And “liberty and justice for all?” We can only hope.

Did you hear that President Obama banned the recitation of the pledge in public schools before he left office. By Executive Order. One of his last actions? You didn’t hear that news?

It was all over the right-wing blog-o-sphere…just before the election last November.

But it was fake news. You see, there really is “fake news.” This particular story was designed to raise more fear, generate more hatred and deepen the anxiety that we liberals, and immigrants and people of color were taking American away from…real Americans?

Just another example of progressives forcing a future of racial and religious pluralism in which American identity would not longer be owned by the White, Christian “tribe.”

Let’s go back, the fake news urged. Let’s Make America Great Again.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America…by Europeans.

Originally it included a salute . I was not able to find an image but from the description it looked something like this. (I have subsequently learned that the original salute had the hand vertical, with the thumb up, rather than palm down.) That was changed to the hand over the heart in the 1930’s with Hitler’s rise to power.

The pledge was formally adopted by Congress in 1942…when patriotism was at an all time high.

In 1954, the words “Under God” were added. Godless communists, no longer the Nazis, were the threat.

The pledge has been in the courts, off and on, since it was adopted. Especially the question of whether public schools can require students to recite it. The US Supreme Court ruled that children could not be required to recite it…though they could be encouraged.

The liberal Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the same court that made marriage equality legal in 2004, found in 2014 that the “under God” clause does not discriminate against non-believers.

Even here in progressive Oregon, a school may still lead students in reciting the pledge, but must also “respect” the wishes of students who choose not to join in. For the parents here, are any of your children in schools that recite the pledge? Have you been asked to join in?

“I pledge allegiance.”

These days are such a test. I have been wrestling with my patriotism…wondering just how much of a fish-out-of-water I would feel if I moved to Canada? Or Europe? Costa Rica? Have any of you had those fantasies? It is such a privileged, First World problem, I know…even to consider. And yet…

It is clear that we are in the throes of another debate, another argument, another battle about the shape of the American dream and the content of the American creed.

What America is being born today?

It is no idle question. Because within it, is the real and personal question: Will the America that is being born have a place for me?

I have been wrestling with my patriotism and wondering just what America I might be able to pledge my allegiance to. Can I pledge allegiance to a nation that would strip health care from millions? Reward the wealthy for their wealth? Allow more pipelines and pollution? Burn more coal? How did the American dream get so tethered to uncontrolled capitalism?

What will the city on the hill look like for our children and grandchildren? I have been wondering what America is being born and whether there will be a place for me, and for them, in this new creation. Perhaps some of you have been doing some wrestling of your own as I have.

It does feel like a battle and most of us find ourselves on the side that rejects the old sameness as a virtue and celebrates our present and future of increasing diversity and pluralism. We have heard the demographic predictions for years now. By 2050, or 2040, or 2025…the year keeps getting closer…we will become a majority minority country in terms of race and culture.

Even here in very white Oregon, 47% of the children in the Portland public schools are children of color.

But the demographics reflect a shift that is much deeper…a shift in our self-understanding…in our understanding of who we are as a people.

Last year, Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute published his long awaited book, “The End of White Christian America.” In it, he argues that the dominant American identity has, from our beginnings as a nation, had both a racial and a religious shape.

Being White and Christian has defined who a “real” American is. Others may be tolerated. But that toleration does not change who is in charge. The norm against which all others are measured has remained clear.

But today, thanks to increasing racial diversity, increasing religious pluralism, the decline of religious identification in general (the “nones”) and the graying of White Christian America itself, all that is changing. Jones argues that the power and control of White Christian America is, in fact, coming to an end.

Obama’s election was the symbolic repudiation and end of this long-running and powerful cultural construct. The Trump election a reaction to that loss of power. And, at least in this election, it turned out that there were enough angry white Christian voters to grant a squeaking electoral college victory. At least that is the theory he puts forward.

There is clearly value in his analysis. There is no doubt in my mind, at least, that the results of the last election were fueled by loss and fear.

But that demographic analysis does not get us to hope. And so those of us on the progressive side of the aisle need to go deeper. And it is such a challenge to stretch our compassion to embrace those with whom we disagree on so many things.

The demographic changes are real but the heart of the American promise is not demographic.

Patriotism , wrote Erica Jong, is a radical dedication to the ideals upon which one’s country was founded: an ability to see through ephemeral issues to enduring ones; …Real Patriotism (as opposed to the kind that is the last refuge of a scoundrel) essentially is an ability to see the sweep rather than the blips of history. 

 

The sweep rather than the blips of history.

What does patriotism mean? What does love of country mean — and what has it ever meant to you? Love of freedom, freedom of speech and movement, human rights and civil rights, what else?

Does whatever patriotism you can muster reside in the victories for justice we have fought for and won. The ending of slavery, the vote for women, the ending of legal apartheid known as the Civil Rights struggle, the ADA, Marriage Equality…

Looking at the sweep of history you can see a willingness of each generation to expand the definition of who we mean when we say we the people. And that is an inspiring story. And it fits our liberal religious theology of process to a “T.” We take the next step and then the next, celebrating each one but never satisfied that the Beloved Community is fully realized.

Looking at the sweep of history helps us imagine these current days as just a blip, helps us lift our eyes beyond the current decisions to gut our environmental commitments by executive order or ban a religion from our shores.

The sweep of history also helps remind us that these days are not the first time progress toward the Beloved Community has been threatened. The Gilded Age of the 1890’s, when the Pledge of Allegiance was written, saw income inequality just as extreme as we see today. The robber barons were no models of compassion.

The original America First movement wanted to ban Catholic immigration from southern Europe.

Joseph McCarthy was finally exposed.

The sweep of history tells us that even the many steps backward we are experiencing now can be reversed.

The sweep of history also speaks to us of the importance of resistance. And resistance is blossoming all around us this spring.

At the national level, a health care bill that would have stripped insurance from over 20 million citizens was not even brought up for a vote. Here in Portland, protests and calls flooded the ICE offices and led to the release of activist Francisco Dominguez.

We can, I think, find ground for patriotism or at least energy for resistance in the truth of our successes and the urgent need for our resistance.

What I know is that we have to move beyond the celebration of what we have already achieved in this wealthy land. Our current culture is so…flawed. Our values so askew. We can see it:

Most other 1st world nations have much better health care at much lower cost, better educational outcomes, less homelessness and more financial security. All of them are less militaristic than we are, if spending on armaments is any measure. Or gun ownership.

Our patriotism cannot be grounded in a shallow exceptionalism that refuses to see our shortcomings.

An authentic patriotism can only grow out of a clear eyed vision that recognizes the challenges we face and the threats to our freedom; a vision that finds real hope in the coming together that is our best response. The coming together of “We…the people.”

Think of the “indivisible” groups that have formed. The women’s march. The partnerships formed and forming to preserve and protect what is of human value.

All of that is hopeful and true.

But there is also a return that we need to make. Not a return to a lost Eden of sameness, but a return and a reclaiming of the idealism and the spiritual foundation on which our nation was built.

Thomas Jefferson, flawed and conflicted as he was, still gave voice to that vision. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all of us [all men] are created equal…”

In his 1st Inaugural Address: “ Equal and exact justice for all…of whatever state or persuasion…; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none. …Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of person…These principles form the bright constellation which has guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. …They should be the creed of our political faith… and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety.”

Remember the language of the pledge: liberty and justice for all.

America was built on slavery and the theft of the land…that legacy we still struggle to redeem.

This nation was a work in process from its very first day.

“When we talk of the American democratic faith,” wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger, “we must understand it in its true dimensions. It is not an impervious, final, and complacent orthodoxy, intolerant of deviation and dissent, fulfilled in flag salutes, oaths of allegiance, and hands over hearts. … The Creed has been the means by which Americans have haltingly but persistently narrowed the gap between performance and principle. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.”

Just as Dr. King called up the words of the Declaration of Independence before hundreds of thousands in his I Have a Dream speech, calling on this nation to redeem its “bad check,”

Just so I believe we must resurrect our foundational language, not to suggest a return to those times, but to insist on a movement to make those promises real.

It’s a pretty good country…that can survive even the current threats to its character.

It’s a pretty good country…if we can sustain resistance to the forces that would tear us apart.

It’s a pretty good country…and it is our choice what it will become. What America is being born…is up to us.

In the words of poet Maya Angelou


We, this people,
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence,
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe…

When we come to it
to the day of peacemaking —
We must confess that we are the possible,
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.

 

We, the people…

 

Prayer:

Will you pray with me now?

Spirit of Life and of Love.

Help us remember not only the shortcomings of this nation

But the beauty of this land.

Help us resist the call to fear one another

And remember the beauty of all our people.

Help us find the energy and the will to be

Builders of a Beloved Community.

Help us resurrect the hope in this land and its people.

Help us, in the words of Langston Hughes,

Let, America be America again,

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be.

Amen