, Newburyport, MA


July 4, 2013

Is grace still shed on thee?

When Katherine Bates, an English prof at Wellesley College, first penned one of our patriotic songs after a trip to Colorado, she marveled how God had “shed his grace on thee.” We have to ask whether such is still the case, since patriotism has morphed into nationalism and “civil discourse” has become a great civil war of words.

Bates’ poem is patriotic in the best sense of the word — just a love poem to her native land and the joy it brought to her heart. There are many such hymns to countries all over the world, but in some, ours included, the word “patriotism” has been snagged by people with more aggressive agendas. To distinguish them from ourselves, we brand them “super-patriots.”

The Brit, Samuel Johnson, famously called the extreme form “the last refuge of scoundrels,” which must have raised eyebrows in jolly old England, given that he uttered those words two years before the American Revolution.

Indeed, such persons look askance at us today if we dare to say that the beauty of other lands has merit comparable to ours.

“Civil discourse” is also our ideal, and something we desperately need, since democracy calls for freedom of expression — however crackpot it may be.

And I would like to cite recent examples of such tolerance, but I can’t think of any. Nothing seems to sweeten the national conversation; these are violent times in both word and deed, and there will be blood.

Around Independence Days we also witness the conflation of patriotism and religion, and some people seem to think ours is a theocracy. But I must warn that to reference the Bible, e.g., for instructions in civility is to take a tour of hell.

We actually expect much more in terms of social behavior than did those of ancient times, not to mention they had thicker skins. Discourse in the Middle East was vigorous to the max and Jesus, as a Jew, was a prime example: Their bible was given to considerable mayhem, but then Christianity has been no improvement.

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