A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
"God Bless America!" Since September 11, 2001, we have heard those words many times. In recent weeks, however, they have new meaning. What seemed right and simple to some in the United States has become very complicated. What seemed wrong to anti-war protesters is now a painful reality. Yet all of us want to support our nation.
Church leaders have always struggled with the relationship between Christianity and citizenship. We know that no person or nation ever "earns" God's blessings, but we hope.
In 1905, George Richards, leader in the Reformed Church, faculty member and later president of Lancaster Theological Seminary, published a thanksgiving essay entitled "Our National Ideals." German Reformed churches in Pennsylvania go back to colonial times. German Reformed patriots fought in the Revolutionary War and participated in the founding of the nation. In 1934, the Reformed Church in the United States and the Evangelical Synod of North America came together to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1957, the E and R Church united with the Congregational Christian churches to create the United Church of Christ.
Richards was an educator. He wrote, "The measure of character is not simply what has been achieved, but what is aspired to." He continued, "This is true also of a nation. The ideals for which it stands and after which it strives are the actual test of its worth." Richards, like many in his time, was sure that Christianity was the reason for our country's success. He lauded the link between the Bible, the vote and public education. He believed that when taken together they made this country great.
Yet, Richards was also critical. "We must not confound our ideals with our actual attainments." In 1905, he saw "alarming evidences of corruption and disintegration in our national life."
"Aristocracies of wealth are taking the place of the older and more reputable aristocracies of blood and culture. Society is rotting from the gilded palaces downward and from the wretched slums upward. Religious toleration is jeopardized by sectarianism, or is abused by infidelity. Education itself may degenerate into mere preparation for breadwinning," Richards wrote.
Almost 100 years later, most of us would probably judge Richards' assumptions about our country's excellence as too nationalistic, too sectarian, too Anglo- Saxon and too male. Yet, his recognition that attainments and ideals must cohere is important. If God is to "bless America" it does matter how our beliefs and our actions connect. It also is important to remember that ultimately God's blessings are never earned or deserved, they are a gift.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board, teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.