God & America & Apple Pie

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The expression, “As American as apple pie,” has always puzzled me since apple pies didn’t originate in America. With regard to that expression, one particular entry I read on the internet caught my attention. The entry stated that American soldiers in WWII, when asked why they were fighting, simply said they were fighting for “Mom and apple pie.” It’s a sweet and unsophisticated answer and it makes Americans sound a lot more appealing and innocent than we actually are. After having very nearly annihilating the 500 nations that were indigenous to America, we can hardly claim to have any kind of innocence. But we persist in representing ourselves to ourselves as a nation that is still touched with a purity that we banished from our shores long ago. We are a little to enamored of the idea of mom and apple pie—and we don’t mind at all that the image conjures up a white 1950’s America, a representation that varies only in degrees from Hitler’s dream of an Aryan nation.

 In this country, we have a way of masking things, making ourselves appear more virtuous than we actually are. Or even making us appear as something that we’re not—or never were.  We like to dumb ourselves down. We don’t want or like people who sound as if they are overly proud of having a good mind and are able to apply that good mind to something like, well, science. George W. Bush is a good example. He may not have been brilliant—but neither was he as stupid as he would have had us believe. He liked to pretend that he was just another good old boy from Texas when in fact he came from a long line of not-so-poor Yankees who wound up emigrating to the Lone Star State. His wife, Laura said of him at the opening of the first Texas Book Festival, “George’s idea of literature is the sport’s page.” She was joking, of course. But that image of the sports loving, anti-intellectual, every day guy is part of the reason many Americans found him so affable. We don’t like intellectuals. We think they’re elitists. Never mind that it is the wealthy oligarchs—it isn’t so inappropriate to call them that these days—never mind that the wealthy oligarchs of this country best fit the definition of being elitist. In the popular American imagination, it is the philosophy professor making less than $100,000.00 who is the elitist. We can only stick the label of elitist on the professor in an anti-intellectual environment where we all too suspicious of people who use their minds and their critical-thinking skills to make a living. We label the professor as an elitist not because he is one, but because it gives an anti-intellectual culture an excuse to dismiss anything he has to say. After George W., we elected Obama who was popular enough (though not so popular, if I am to guess, in the neighborhoods surrounding Covington Catholic High School). But the thing about Obama was that he was often accused of sounding too much like a law professor. And though it may have given us some comfort that he knew the law, the professor part didn’t go down so well. We really don’t like intellectuals in this country. Intellectuals use too many words. They think they’re superior. We don’t like the way they talk. We like our truth like we like our bourbon: straight up, hold the rocks and the adjectives. Only the truth is, we don’t like the truth about ourselves at all. We don’t want to know the truth about ourselves. We are addicted to engaging in discourses that disguise our own forms of violence, or better, discourses that make our own forms of violence almost disappear altogether. Mexicans, Central Americans, and Muslims are violent. But we are not.

In our latest public outburst that exposed our inability to deal with our own racism (Covington Catholic Students vs. Nathan Phillips), white people (not all white people) were rushing to preserve the naïve, ingenue appearing innocence of the white boys who attend Covington Catholic School. The story is not what it appears yelled the parents of the boys and the public relations firm they hired to spin the story. You see it was those racist black men, those who call themselves Hebrew Israelites who were the cause of the entire episode. The argument goes something like this: These boys are victims of a country all too ready to pounce on white people for the sin of being born white. All they were doing was attending a pro-life rally when they found themselves surrounded and all they did was to stand their ground. Our boys are good boys. They would never deliberately harm anyone. It’s those other people, they’re the racists. Yes, the narrative goes something like that. But the narrative created takes it one step further. They are absolutely unhinged that a majority of us don’t admire them because, well, because they’re so goddamned admirable.   

Except for this: the arrogant gaze of an entitled young man with the unmistakable look of disdain on his face. No public relations firm can turn that expression into something calm and compassionate. Dig deep enough into the history of this school, who attends, the behavior of their student body over the years and the politics that informs the culture and society to which they belong, and you’ll certainly reach for words like “privileged,” “elitist,” and “white.” Throughout this whole episode, we are supposed to feel bad because they are, they are the victims. We’re supposed to apologize to them. We’re supposed to feel their pain when there is not one hint that they are even capable of feeling anybody else’s pain but their own. I keep seeing that impervious, impenetrable face of that young man. I don’t need to know his name, although he has one. And he doesn’t need to know our names either—he’s already decided he’s better than the rest of us. His is the face that haunts this nation that is infused with a racism that seems to be reborn with every generation of Americans. And what is more, that racism is such a normal part of so many people’s lives that they don’t even recognize its presence when it makes its appearance on the very expressions they wear on their faces.

And then there’s this: attending a pro-life rally in Washington D.C. is hardly an a-political act and it is not an act that many people in this country find to be all that innocent. The fact that the “pro-life” movement is hardly pro-life but simply an anti-abortion movement that is associated with the extreme right is not lost on many of us. It is all too easy to romanticize about respect for life and the rights of the unborn—precisely because they are unborn. But what about respect for life for those who are already born? The “pro-life” movement shows its inconsistency, if not its hypocrisy in failing to respect the lives of millions of people—especially if those lives differ in opinion from them, have a divergent vision of America, or have skins with darker pigments.  

Catholicism is very much at the center of the anti-abortion, respect for life movement—but the church has shown absolutely no respect for the lives of those children who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of its priests. We are talking about children. We’re not talking about playing the politics of victimization. We are talking about children who were victimized at the hands of “holy men” who had influence and power, men whom those children trusted and whose lives they changed forever. And what is more, the Church protected those priests and forced the victims to speak out in their own defense, despite their fear and humiliation.

And where is the respect for the lives of women whose dignity has been demeaned for centuries? Where is the respect for the faithful women who have never been treated as equals in a church that continues to overvalue the lives of men and persists in undervaluing the gender that is not male. Are we to believe that God sees more of his glory reflected in the bodies of men than he (I apologize for the pronoun) does in the bodies of women? The Catholic church is not known for speaking out in defense of he rights of women.  Perhaps, because the Catholic Church is a religious organization run by men, it has been slow to champion the rights of women and the abuses that have been visited upon them by societies the world over, societies that are still overwhelmingly run by men.

And this question hits a little closer to home: Where is the respect for the lives of homosexuals? We are not oversexualized animals in the guise of human beings. We are not deviants who suffer from moral and mental deficiencies—at least no more so than our heterosexual counterparts who believe themselves to be superior by the very fact that they were born with a sexual attraction for which they bear no responsibility. One’s sexual attraction should not be treated as a flaw. Nor should it be treated as a virtue. We are not lesser creatures than heterosexuals. We were born, as the church would have it, as God’s children and were born homosexuals through no choice of our own. And yet we have been despised and been the objects of scorn and oppression in a church that was founded on the principal of offering solace to the oppressed and salvation to the world.

And this is to say nothing of the respect for the lives of Native Americans who were forced by the church to attend boarding schools and were treated as savages when, in fact, the actions of the representatives of the church were far move savage than any of the rituals and traditions that were practiced by the indigenous peoples they encountered. In 1550, Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican friar argued before the Catholic Court of Spain, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas had a soul and were fully human. He lost the debate.

I do not say that the Catholic church has not acknowledged many of its past sins. And I certainly do not believe that the Catholic church condones racism—at least not in its current teachings. I do say that as long as the Catholic church remains in alliance with the Republican party and the right-wing politics of this country, then it not only compromises its own values, but its voice ceases to have any moral claim on its followers or on the general American populace.

In their most recent newsletter, The National Conference of Catholic Bishops made it a point to publish President Trump’s commitment to uphold Pro-life Laws. Archbishop Naumann, speaking on behalf of the Conference commended Mr. Trump and offered his effusive gratitude “for protecting women from the violence of abortion.”  In the same newsletter the National Council sent out a press release celebrating Catholic Schools Week. This year, their theme focuses on “the important spiritual, academic and societal contributions provided by a Catholic education firmly rooted in the Gospel.

It appears that lawsuits are being prepared against those parties that “libled” the students of Covington Catholic. A public relations firm has been retained and the Bishop has retracted his letter of apology on behalf of the students. The students are taking no responsibility for the incident and are casting the blame squarely on the backs of those who spread misinformation about them that soiled their reputation. These actions do not reflect an authentic underlying spirituality, nor do they reflect actions that are rooted in the Gospels. There is no sense of humility or reflection or forgiveness or thought to the pain of the other parties involved. Turning the other cheek does not seem to be an option that is on the table. Is this truly a Catholic school or is it just a private school for privileged young men? The question is a legitimate one and one that ought to be asked. And it is a question that ought to be answered honestly.

Perhaps because the Catholic Church is a world church and not a church with its roots in this country, I expect more from the way it behaves and inserts itself into our public discourse. I expect little from the Pat Robertson’s of this country and other right-wing evangelical churches and their outspoken leaders who behave as if (or perhaps even believe that) God is an American with white skin. Neither their theology nor their spirituality offers anything meaningful or transcendent. One cannot hate in the name of love, and racism (unlike homosexuality) is a choice and it is a choice that disqualifies the racist from being an actual Christian. Calling yourself a Christian does not make you one.  White nationalism masquerading as Christianity is not Christianity at all. Their involvement in American politics provides a powerful argument for the separation between church and state. In a democracy, where every individual is accorded equal treatment under the law, why should the laws of this country accord special treatment to believers? Believers may consider themselves more virtuous and more patriotic than non-believers but the constitution accords them no special treatment and no special treatment should be given. When Christians demand that their rights be respected but have no respect for those who are not in agreement with their faith, then they are crossing the line between the separation between church and state. Those that hold that America was founded as a Christian nation are simply wrong. Nothing in the Constitution nor the historical documents surrounding the writing of the constitution nor in the writings of the framers of the constitution suggests that America was intended to be a Christian nation. We can neither abandon science nor can we abandon history if we are to consider ourselves a great nation. Great nations are not built on a deliberate ignorance. This is anti-intellectualism in the extreme.

And then there’s this: That the students of Covington Catholic were wearing Make America Great Again caps is not insignificant. In a very real sense, they were signaling the team they were on—or at very least they signaled that they supported the message of that team. President Trump’s motto is racist at its core. Where does that motto come from and what does that mean?—and why did that motto resonate with so many de facto racists? The answer is obvious and has everything to do with America’s election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States. The ascendency of a black man to an office reserved for a white man meant the descendence of America. While many of us saw the election of Barack Obama as a sign that America was at last beginning to fulfill its promise of equality, others saw his election as a sign that something that rightfully belonged to them had been taken away. The great white nation was no longer white and therefore no longer great. And Donald Trump arrived announcing he was going to return this nation to its greatness—which is to say, its whiteness. His Make America Great Again meant exactly this: after eight years of a black presidency which has destroyed the fabric of America, I am here to give this nation back to the people it was created for—and I will make sure it will never happen again by enacting policies and creating a cultural environment that will make the election of another Obama all but impossible. This is in fact is the message that MAGA caps convey. Unlike the gowns of the KKK, the wearing of a MAGA cap has become an acceptable way to express one’s racism without even calling it that. What’s wrong with attempting to “make America great again?” the wearer of the cap will innocently ask. How is that racist?

Are we to pretend that we do not understand the message that is being sent? And, in the name of free speech, are we to be forced to admire those who choose to announce their bigotry and parade it in front of us? This is after all a free country where freedom of speech is sacred. Bigots, I suppose, are free to express their racists beliefs. But they should not expect the rest of to find their views admirable. And there certainly should be no expectation of gaining the moral high ground in the fight for what the future of America should be and should look like. Call us leftist lunatics if you like but I do not believe we should make the mistake of respecting human dignity a left/right issue. The dignity of every human being should be a concern for every citizen regardless of their political ideology.

That the President of the United States is undeniably racist seems to be obvious to everyone. There are many who deny it (including the President himself), but they deny it not because it’s not true but because to state it explicitly would be to welcome too many obstacles to an agenda not in keeping with the fundamental values of this nation. Better to make it indirect and attack the left for—well, for any reason at all. From the onset, President Trump signaled to his core followers that he was one of them—and like them he did not care for the non-white interlopers who were overrunning the country like cockroaches. Neither Trump nor his followers care very much for the idea of America as being a county of immigrants. Trump and those who very nearly treat him as if he were the second coming of Christ are White Nationalists who desire that the nation be populated with white people—and Trump thinks nothing of enacting policies that discourage ethnic minorities from participating in government and limiting immigration from “shithole” countries. It is no accident that Mexican immigration is a big concern for Trump. For Mexicans present the biggest threat to the dream of a white nation.  

I do not view the students of Covington Catholic as being all that innocent. They live in a culture that breeds entitlement and it is also a culture that breeds bullying. And that culture is not the fault of the students—but the fault of the adults that surround and educate them. They are told it is okay to wear caps supporting a corrupt and racist president because the adults around them either support the racist culture he is creating through his policies and the language he uses or because they live in denial of his corruption. Their hatred of progressive policies and policy makers have left them in a state of almost permanent hatred for anyone who even resembles a Democrat. James Baldwin once wrote, “The Children of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians.” We must all ask ourselves What are we educating our children to? To what purpose? What are we teaching them to become?

The children of America belong to all of us. And, in that sense, the boys of Covington Catholic belong to me. They are not monsters, they are boys—though they are capable of monstrous things. But it is our charge to ensure that they do not become monsters. If that is what they become, then perhaps it was we who taught them to become those monsters, either through the sins of commission or through the sins of omission. It is our charge to care for them, to educate them, to clothe them, to teach them right from wrong, to love them, to forgive them and to teach them to forgive. And to give them hope and a sense of belonging—but a belonging that is not at the expense of exiling the other.

We are enamored of the image of America, Mom and Apple pie. We love the image of the innocent and naïve American who is not sophisticated enough to understand why he is actually fighting a war. Perhaps the biggest lie we tell ourselves as a nation is that we want to hear the truth even as we cling to myths about ourselves that never were.  

I fear, we have lost our sense of what the truth is—and this by design.

I know we will find something of the truth within ourselves again and begin—perhaps for the first time—an honest assessment of ourselves and our history, asking for forgiveness along the way for the many ways we have failed to live up to the great beauties of democracy.

Though, at the present moment, democracy seems like a dream that is slipping away, I   believe we will find our way back. As I sit her at my desk, I am recalling the closing of Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

I have always found those words profound and moving. As a citizen, I cling to those words to give me strength and hope to continue fighting for a country that I desperately love, not because it is perfect, for it is a flawed and wounded country and it is, at times, impossibly cruel. But it is my duty as a citizen to help heal its wounds, that this land that I was born to may yet be a force for good in a world that is in such desperate need of goodness.

Benjamins Alire Saenz