Irving Berlin's Hat Trick
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
"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
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
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
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry.