America: The Un-United States
By Randall E. Davey
Those in whom God lovingly dwells stand for the possibility of a new heaven and new earth.
With the stench of the Civil War, still burning in the nostrils of a bitterly divided nation, Captain George Thatcher Balch, a Union Army veteran, crafted the first iteration of The Pledge of Allegiance. His 1885 draft was soon modified by fellow northerner, Rev. Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist minister of Baptist stock. Both patriots believed in the power of liturgy in creating a vision for the future, quite unlike the present or past; a future of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
While Balch and Bellamy saw the pledge as a way of teaching children “true Americanism” while reigning in immigrants, the Dixie flag (the Southern Cross), a symbolic reminder of the deep divide, didn’t die with Lincoln. It still flies indiscreetly today.
Though the end of the Civil War aborted secessionist objectives, America was far from united or re-united. Admittedly, slaves were freed and males granted the right to vote but African American women, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans wouldn’t realize the same liberties for nearly a century
God made it into the pledge by 1948. Illinois attorney Louis Albert Bowman offered the addition “under God,” a suggestion that later got real traction with the onset of the Cold War. Those who wanted to distinguish America from the state atheism advocated by Marxist-Leninist countries roundly endorsed it. On Flag Day, June 14, 1954, President Eisenhower, a newly minted Presbyterian, signed a bill making the edits official.
Most public schools in America require students to recite the pledge daily, an expression of the belief that recitation can be a means of incarnation, breeding loyalty to God and country. Ironically, President Richard Nixon, throat-deep in the Watergate Scandal, was the first president to conclude an official speech with “God bless America,” linking patriotism, nationalism and God. His April 30, 1973 benediction included a blessing for “the American people.” “May God bless America, and may God bless each and every one of you,” a request that God surely couldn’t grant.
Far from being united, America was then and is now, a country where women rarely get equal pay for equal work, are regularly excluded from places of leadership, are routinely unwelcomed in pulpits—with notable exceptions. The “me too” movement exposed a dark and malevolent attitude and practice in which women were treated as objects to be “grabbed,” versus a gender to be esteemed and honored. America was then and is now a country where the color of one’s skin may ensure discrimination, substandard education, suboptimal opportunity, and compromised human rights. America was then and is now, a country where justice for all is inconceivable. Clearly, persons of wealth and persons of power can navigate the halls of justice where the poor and marginalized can’t manage the freight to make it through the front doors.
In the waning days of 2019, anti-Semitism coupled with violence against Jews is on the upswing in America, as is white-on-white terrorism. School, church and synagogue shootings undoubtedly reflect the pervasive and malignant presence of hate groups, a hallmark of white supremacy, the Ku-Klux-Klan, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racist skinheads, black separatists, neo-confederates, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, holocaust denial, male supremacy, and anti-Muslim groups. These factions show no signs of dissipating.
Still, politicians regularly speak for and of the “American people,” as though the country is philosophically, theologically, sociologically, and pragmatically monolithic. The American people are no closer to constituting “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” than at the inception of the pledge. God cannot honor the late Richard Nixon’s request then or now, and ecumenism has done little to help.
Pausing to reminisce may be helpful. Balch, Bellamy, and Bowman were not the first with a Utopic view of the future. According to Scripture, God trumped this trio—envisioning a new Eden characterized by love and unity. (The church, as a microcosm of the world, and the church in America—as a microcosm of the church global—are characterized by many things but loving one another is not one of them). The mere existence of denominations or “independent, non-denominational” churches is evidence of a history of schisms.
Self-confessing Christ followers are no less likely to use uncomely narratives when squaring off on theological, social, and political issues. For proof-positive, scour Facebook and other social media platforms. There, one can see a person who objects to a president’s dishonesty or where hate speech is automatically lumped in with “baby killers,” and all things liberal.
The United States of America is no closer, and perhaps farther away, from God’s “Kingdom on earth,” or from being Eisenhower’s “one nation under God,” in 2019 than it was in 1885. That assessment isn’t intended to rain on America’s parade. It does suggest that the means by which Americans have attempted to achieve “peace on earth,” or peace in the neighborhood have failed to meet expectations.
For the bulk of 2020, Americans will be offered a steady diet of plans, policies and programs, the proponents of which aspire to the office of president. Offering their resumes, awards and achievements, candidates will crisscross America, promising a better America contingent on their election to the office of president. While some of the candidates give a tacit nod to Rome, others to Jerusalem and a few to the Christian right, none of them advance their platform with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Rather, they point to the ways their leadership held sway in their respective parties with respect to jobs, health care, and education. Their election, they imply, will yield more of the same: more jobs, better health care and broad-based educational opportunities—ushering in an idyllic America.
Here, one wonders. Imagine a leader who has sufficient intellectual acumen, commendable character, exemplary integrity, physical and emotional tenacity, and political panache. Could a candidate of this ilk enjoy a leg up on the competition if this same leader lived in submission to the Trinity? Is this possibility the stuff of fantasy?
Maybe there is a better question with a broader application. Can leaders of any stripe who live in submission to the Trinity show up differently in the world? Is it reasonable to think that a loving God living in a God-loving leader could bring a different twist to her or his constituency and maybe foster a semblance of unity where division currently exists? Imagine.
Imagine a leader committed to both truth and grace and quick to confess and make amends when failing on either front. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who acknowledged and respected every individual, regardless of race, religion, age, gender, nationality, language group, political persuasion, or sexual preference as an image bearer of God. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who treated everyone with dignity or who refused to impugn the character of others or diminish anyone’s value. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who esteemed others more highly then her or himself. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who listened to learn versus listening to react. Imagine.
Imagine a leader committed to building her opponents up versus tearing them down. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who forgave without an apology from an offending opponent? Imagine.
Imagine a leader who was compassionate and especially sensitive to the mentally ill or physically disabled. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who was committed to pursuing peace and understood that to be more than the absence of conflict. Imagine.
Imagine a leader sensitive to the poor, concerned for the hungry, alert to the sick, and not indifferent to the imprisoned. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who saw migrant children as the least of these and advocated for their health and welfare. Imagine.
Imagine a humble leader. Imagine.
Imagine a leader who sought and respected the counsel of others. Imagine.
Imagine one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Imagine.
Imagine a leader, a follower, a community of persons committed to lavishing love by “acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly” with Creator God. Imagine.
Is all of this—the one nation under God, the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, a nation united—the stuff of dreams or myths? Is the notion that a leader who serves redemptively with a God who loves uncompromisingly the business of fanciful thinking? Is the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. advanced in 1963 a nice but unachievable idea? It remains to be realized and remains to be seen.
May it be so.
Randall E. Davey earned the M. Div. from Nazarene Theological Seminary and is A.B.D. from Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. Davey, a chartered advisor in philanthropy, is an investor advisor representative with Geer Financial Group. In this capacity, he consults with foundations, charities, and major donors. He and his wife of 49 years live in Phoenix, Arizona.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.