During our Manifest Destiny days, when we were taking everything in sight as we moved west, boundaries and treaties notwithstanding, a wagon train pioneer gazed into the setting sun. Emblazoned on the skyline he saw the enormous figure of an eagle, wings spread wide as if beckoning the travelers onward.
It was, the pioneer noted in his diary, another divine sign with meaning clear: God intended for us to take that land and was thus letting us know His wishes.
That presumed relationship between the Deity and America is so deeply ingrained in us that by now we take it for granted. That God blesses America we all know. We also know, if we admit it, that when useful we have claimed to have God's approval for our actions, even when we know they are wrong.
And despite the careful lines drawn to separate church and state in American life, there exists a strong national impulse to blend the two. Twice in recent days, for example, the Supreme Court has rendered decisions that would seem to make those distinctions less sharp.
In one, the court relaxed restrictions on public aid to religious schools. In the other, it said the Constitution permits a legislature to pay a chaplain to open each day's session with prayer. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, in explaining why this was not an unauthorized establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment, said "the practice . . . has become part of the fabric of our society."
These rulings come as the pressure to put prayer back in public schools--or put God back in the classroom, as some put it--builds anew. They are reminders that one of our oldest political questions, the proper relationship between church and state, remains very much a troubling national issue. They do not help explain why we Americans feel compelled to assert so unique a claim to God's blessing and approval.
For that, perhaps a reader with a different perspective is useful. Ever since he arrived in the United States as a 22-year-old immigrant from his native Sweden after World War II, Ted U. Hallberg has been intrigued and perplexed by our national tendency to mix religion and politics.
I herewith yield the floor to Hallberg, who offers a stimulating and provocative exposition on the subject of God and America:
"The first time I heard America robed in divinity was during the election campaign of 1948, just a few days after I had landed in New York City. A candidate, whether Republican or Democrat I never learned, apparently running for a seat in the House of Representatives and speaking to a small crowd on the west side of the city, referred to America as 'this great country of ours, the world's greatest country, God's own country where God's own people live.' Though I cannot recall exactly what my reactions were at the time, I seem to remember that I was as perplexed as I was astonished, not only at the grandiose immodesty of such a claim but also by the obvious conviction and seriousness with which it was uttered.
"This exalted piece of rationalization was contrary to all I had been taught in Sweden about a loving creator, namely, that we are all God's children so to speak, all of us, yellow, black or white, rich or poor, educated or uninformed, powerful or humble, Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists or Shintoists; Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Scandinavians, Africans. On a later occasion when I heard the same make-believe stated, I do recall wondering in who's camp that put my parents, my brother and all the friends I had left behind in Europe as well as all the other people outside the border of the United States.
"As the years went by, as I became more and more interested in American life, and as my application for American citizenship was accepted, I kept hearing the same immodesty expressed and suggested in a thousand ways and nuances and from all kinds of sources and directions. I read and was told and heard it said that the right of Americans to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' was a God-given right. With what appeared to me to be genuine sincerity, many of my new friends, fellow workers and even casual acquaintances seemed eager to impress upon me their belief that the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were divinely inspired; that they were the only documents of their kind to have that high distinction.
"I failed to see the need to have the profundity of the Founding Fathers explained in mythological terms. As a result of extensive study of American history as well as European history, I had been taught that such men as Madison, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton had found their inspiration in other mortal men, the perhaps even more profound thinkers and philosophers of the European enlightenment.
"From religious pulpits, from evangelists speaking on radio and appearing on television, each claiming a special stewardship from above, there came a steady stream of messages to the effect that 'Americans are flocking to the banners of Christ in ever larger numbers,' and that, expressed in 'per capita' terms, the Americans attended the church of their choice in larger numbers than other western peoples. I couldn't help but read into those messages the unstated but inferred moral and ethical superiority of Americans to other nationalities even though I had problems justifying such a conclusion on attendance figures alone.
"From the leaders of U.S. politics, business and labor, from the media and from the worlds of sports and entertainment, I heard it loudly and frequently trumpted that America is the greatest, the richest, the best, the biggest, the most free and the most advanced nation on Earth in all human activities. Though a naturalized citizen, but still a bit 'alien,' still and always with roots in a 'lesser' nation, I found this a little intimidating as well as questionable.
"I have also noticed that each new president avers anew, in one form or another, his belief, real or feigned, in America's divine destiny and its special mission on Earth . . . . Yet we keep arming ourselves and much of the world with ever more sophisticated weapons of destruction. We keep expanding and reinforcing a global network of military alliances, often in collaboration with the most oppressive and tyrannical of dictators, men who appear never to have heard of, much less read, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount or the last two chapters of Ecclesiastes. Or if they have, their greed, their insatiable hunger for power and dominance, and their inhumanity have erased from their minds all the values, morals and ethics we ourselves so loudly profess to adhere to and which we preach to others.
"No doubt this can be a comfortable and reassuring set of make-believes, particularly in times of stress and hardship. But make-believe it is. Not the purposeful make-believes of Soviet communism, but a peculiarly American make-believe, a heady theological aura under which self-satisfaction leads to indifference, in which our penchant for nostalgia induces self-deception, and where myth takes on the validity of truth."
Some sermon, to which this American says, "Amen."