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Irving Berlin's Hat Trick

Tom Flynn


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.


Philip Roth once praised Irving Berlin as the instrument of Jewish American revenge on Christianity. Roth said that, by providing popular anthems for two major Christian holidays, the Jewish composer of "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas" had reduced their subjects to a clothing pageant and a holiday about snow. After September 11's terror attacks, Berlin scored a hat trick: His "God Bless America" has now shouldered aside "The Star Spangled Banner" as the favored tune of the "America is a Christian nation" crowd. There's a peculiar irony in watching Christian conservatives, some of whom probably still believe that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew," sing Berlin's composition.

But behind those voices massed in patriotic hymnody, you might be forgiven for imagining that you hear something sinister. It's the sound of our national clock turning back forty years. It's the sound of the wall of separation between church and state collapsing as catastrophically as any national landmark after the terror attacks. It's the sound of "religion in public life" activists, not just Christian Right hard-liners but even many centrists, scurrying to consolidate their gains after a breathtaking fait accompli.

Before September 11, most Americans recognized, however grudgingly, that government ought not to comport itself in ways that show open favoritism for Christianity or that marginalize the 17 percent of Americans who are not Christian. After September 11, we saw an understandable outpouring of patriotism and public piety. Sadly, many American Christians saw in all this a lush opportunity to exploit the tragedy—to reverse four decades of progress toward diversity and brutally stiff-arm Americans who don't share the majority's belief in a loving deity, life after death, or a transcendent subtext to existence.

On the day of the attack, Michigan Representative David Bonior, a liberal Democrat who should know better, spoke of "all Americans—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim." By implication, he excluded the nonreligious and also millions of pious Americans who follow creeds other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Sorry, Representative Bonior; they're Americans too.

On the Capitol steps, Congress sang "God Bless America." Why not "The Star-Spangled Banner," which at least refrains from evoking a deity not all Americans worship until a later verse that's seldom sung? An ostentatiously Christian memorial service took place in the Capitol rotunda, a snub toward non-Christians that none of us had the heart to criticize when it occurred. Commemorative gatherings were held in every available public space—almost always prayer services rather than memorials or remembrances in which non-Christians and the nonreligious could join too. Over it all rang the strains of "God Bless America."

Because of the tragedy, no church-state watchdog organization criticized these actions—not the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), not Americans United, not the Council for Secular Humanism. We made a mistake. In October the House of Representatives voted 404-0 to encourage public schools to go on using the slogan "God Bless America" in the face of scattered ACLU challenges and the occasional school official who cares about religious diversity. Freshman Representative Henry Brown, R.-S.C., who introduced the bill, cited lawmakers' singing of "God Bless America" as precedent. "To threaten a public school for showing the same type of patriotism that we all showed on the Capitol steps is the opposite of what this country is about," he said. Sorry, Representative Brown, two wrongs don't make a right.

"I think you're going to see more Americans not putting up with those secularists trying to make the public square a religion-free zone," said Richard Land, president of Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention. Jay Sekulow, general counsel of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), looks forward to "a real swelling up of civic religion."

Some elected officials are making the most of it. Texas Governor Rick Perry beamed as the Reverend Roy Duncan led a compulsory middle school assembly in a Christian prayer. To non-Christians who object to this unconstitutional practice, Perry said tartly: "Be tolerant." Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee declared October "Student Religious Liberty Month," urging educators to enrich students' opportunities to pray. Some South Carolina legislators offered a bill that would permit "voluntary prayer" in public schools, dedicate state resources to fighting civil liberties lawsuits, and—appallingly—allow school districts that win such cases to recover costs from civil-liberties plaintiffs.

We can tune higher on the scholarly dial and hear similar refrains. Father Richard John Neuhaus, publisher of First Things and the Religious Right's leading intellectual, predicted that the tragedy would engender "national unity and sobriety in a society that has been obsessed by fake pluralisms." Apparently that means sacrificing the separation of church and state on the altar of a false unity that in fact includes only some.

What we are seeing after the attacks is a bigoted campaign to shut out non-Christian Americans, especially the nonreligious.

According to the latest City University of New York study, 14 percent of Americans are atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, or religiously indifferent. That's more than thirty-seven million Americans who live without religion. (By statistics alone, it would follow that there were about 600 nonreligious among those killed on September 11.) The nonreligious felt no less devastated by the national tragedy than other Americans. If anything our sense of loss was greater, since we envision no next-worldly existence in which the victims might be made whole for what was torn from them.

With time I hope our nation will relearn the lessons of inclusiveness. To say "Christians, Jews, and Muslims" is not to speak of all Americans. When we say "people of every faith," we still have not spoken of all Americans. America includes people of every faith, and of none. The vocabulary, the music, and the allusions public officials choose when they address our loss should reflect that diversity.

We stand at a watershed—not only in terms of America's role in the world, but in terms of whether America will treat its religious minorities with growing fairness, as it has since 1962, or whether it will lurch into a new dark age of exclusion and discrimination against those who believe differently . . . and those who do not believe at all. After we finish smirking at Irving Berlin's hat trick, we are left with the bitter recognition that "God Bless America" could very well be the soundtrack for America turning its back on its religious and cognitive minorities once and for all. We daren't ever again be too polite to object to that.

America mustn't shut out the nonreligious. We have blood and money and skills to contribute, and emotional (if never "spiritual") support to offer. If America's Christian majority insists on freezing us out of its grief work, we'll understand. But next time the call goes out for "All hands on deck," I hope the majority will forgive us if we assume they're talking to somebody else.


Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry.


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