"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Icons (Sunday, May 27, 2012)

            One of my favorite museums in this historical Commonwealth is tucked away, well over an hour from here-- fifty-something miles away-- on a main street in the (relatively) small town of Clinton (which is a bit beyond Marlborough and Westborough and Northborough, in that portion of the state which we here in the east refer to as “out there”). If that was not an incongruous enough place to have one of this learned state’s most respected museums, then its subject certainly is. It’s not a museum of American history; or nineteenth century American literature; or the flora and fauna of Central Massachusetts. No, tucked out there in Clinton is the highly-esteemed, world-class Museum of Russian Icons, which is,  indeed,  the largest collection of Russian icons anywhere in North America. And it’s well worth a visit, in my opinion (and maybe, I hope, another one this summer).

            Icons in the heart of Massachusetts—who would have ever thought it? Icons in America, even? The very topic might seem too foreign, too Eastern, too Orthodox (in the sense of religion) to be of much interest to people hereabouts.

            But no, the Museum of Russian Icons has a very good following; it seems to be doing just fine; they have even built a very handsome and modern addition during the past year. The icons there are beautiful; magnificent examples—more than 500 of them—of Russian religious artwork from the 14th century to modern times. People crave to see icons because they are so beautiful, I think.  

            Icons entice us because they pierce the surface to reach toward a deeper meaning. An icon is, very basically, an image, a picture, a representation, which  stands for something, either by signifying or representing it concretely, or by analogy, or in a stylized manner that is some combination of the two. When we look at an icon, we see what we see (a picture of the Virgin Mary, say), but we see something more, something deeper, we glimpse something of the essence of the subject. 

            Icons are not the same as idols. Icons engage us; they lure us in. Idols are static images; two or three dimensional representations that call not for engagement, but merely for unquestioning admiration, adoration, or devotion.

            There’s another meaning of the term “icon” too, of course. An icon is not just a work of art. It also means a person, a place, or a thing that has come to symbolize something beyond itself; an icon is a symbol of something that has greater significance or meaning or importance. In this sense, there are religious icons, too; but there are also cultural ones, or political or nationalistic ones.

            There’s the flag, for instance. People see the American flag waving, and it brings up all kinds of emotions;. That’s a sign that something is an icon: if it engenders a range of real feelings within us. The flag has become an icon—a symbol-- of the whole American story, our entire national history, of the battles fought and the laws passed and the men and women who lived and died for what America represents—freedom, liberty, justice, our highest ideals.

            But if the flag is an icon of America—and not just an American idol—then it has to draw us in; it has to engage us; it has to cause us to ponder the truth and depth of the American story, and our place in it.

            Not too long after the events of September 11th, I had to drive into Boston (seldom a pleasant experience), and the fact that I was locked in traffic from the Braintree split onward made it even more unpleasant. But I had chosen to drive rather than taking the “T”, so I really couldn’t complain.

But what really aggravated me was that in that ten miles or so that I was stuck in traffic, I was cut off three times—twice by people who didn’t seem to know what yellow “Merge” signs mean, and once by someone in a big white SUV who was damned if he was going to let me take advantage of a four-car-long piece of “daylight” that had opened up (somehow) in the lane I was traveling in—so he cut in on me—from the right to the middle lane—and then gave me the finger for blowing the horn at him!

Now, maybe ministers think too much (especially when we’re caught in traffic), and maybe I brood too much (especially when I’m caught in traffic)—but what do you suppose the vehicles of all three of those “aggressive drivers” (to use a polite term) had in common?

(No, it wasn’t Rhode Island plates, though that would be a good guess.) They were all flying American flags! (You know—the kind you can attach to your radio antenna, or whatever.) I thought to myself, perhaps a bit judgmentally:  It’s easy to mouth the platitudes of patriotism; it’s another thing to live out the civic virtues which patriotism truly represents, including common decency and civility.

Late in August of 1984, a couple of months into the national tour for his Born in the U.S.A. album, Bruce Springsteen appeared for four nights at the Capital Center, outside of Washington, D.C. In the audience for one of the shows was conservative columnist George Will, who had become intrigued by reports of the flag waving and other patriotic overtones that were said to accompany Springsteen’s recent concerts. After attending about half of one of the Capital Center shows, Will filed a column titled “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen”, which appeared in newspapers across the country. In his column, Will spoke of how “flags get waved” at Springsteen’s concerts, and of how “the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seem punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’” Will implied that “all-American” and “patriotic” values like those modeled by Springsteen were just what the country needed to keep forging ahead down the road of Reaganomics. After all, George Will had seen American flags waving at Springsteen’s concert; he assumed, then, that, Springsteen’s vision of America was the same as his own and of those who controlled the American government.

That’s when the flag becomes not an icon, but an idol. Anyone who had actually listened to or read the lyrics of Springsteen’s anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.” would know immediately that this was no paean to American superiority or perfection; it was no rallying cry to support the privileged and moneyed Powers That Be; it was no call for us to swear unquestioned allegiance to all of the policies of the U.S. government. No, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a sad and bitter story of a Vietnam veteran who comes home and can’t find a job. His life is in shambles; his hopes have dried up. The song is no anthem of American greatness, but rather, a fire bolt of judgment hurled against a society which has let down those sent to do its dirty work.

When we fly the flag, then—if it is to be a truly meaningful symbol of what it means to be an American—then it has to take in the unemployed veteran along with the heroism of Lexington and Concord and D-Day and 9/11. It has to take in both American abundance and prosperity and wealth and progress, and slaves in shackles and workers in sweat shops and the internment of Japanese civilians during the Second World War. The stars on the American flag stand for Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony; but they stand for Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepard, just as certainly.

The icon of the flag draws us in. Then, if it really does its work within us, it changes our heart; and engages our minds; then moves us to action—to make real the deeper truths, the wider vision, the higher ideals, which that symbol represents.

Ideals summed up in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, right? Perhaps.

Did you know that the Pledge of Allegiance was written in Boston? That’s right; it was written in the large red brick office building on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Berkeley Street (something I probably never would have know had I not driven a sightseeing trolley for a couple of seasons back in the 1990’s).

 The original author of the Pledge of Allegiance was a Methodist minister named Francis Bellamy, who was also a “Christian Socialist”, back before the days of the Christian Right, when that term would not have been considered quite as much of an oxymoron. Rev. Bellamy was pretty outspoken in his beliefs, too (as anyone daring to call himself both a Christian and a Socialist would tend to be, I suppose). He was an unwavering advocate of economic justice and social activism—so much so that he was fired from his ministry at one of Boston’s Methodist churches. But in 1892, he found a job as a staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a monthly periodical for young people, which was very popular at the time.

Bellamy was also named to a committee of educators and community leaders working on a suitable observance of the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. It was to commemorate that anniversary that the Pledge of Allegiance first appeared in the October 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion. There, the original Pledge read like this:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

  Bellamy (good socialist that he was) later said that he had also wanted to include the word “equality”—as in, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and equality for all.” But the editors of the magazine thought that including “equality” might be too controversial; it sounded like it gave support to efforts to get the vote for women (which, if truth be told, is what Bellamy did intend y including it, at least in part). So, “equality” was dropped. Then, a month after the original publication of the Pledge, the editors of The Youth’s Companion changed Bellamy’s words slightly as well. “My flag” became “the flag” and the word “to” was added before the words “the Republic”, so that the first line now read: “I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands…”  

A few years later, shortly after the turn of the century, the words “of the United States of America” were added as a clarification, it was said, for newly arrived immigrants who might not know to which flag they were pledging allegiance.

So, much to his chagrin, Rev. Bellamy’s private statement of the faith of the individual in the deeper principles of America had become a mass public oath, insuring loyalty of all citizens to the government of the United States. In Bellamy’s view, at least, his private patriotic icon had become a nationalistic idol instead.

After those initial changes had been made in the wording, they were to remain unaltered for the next half century. But then, a larger, even more intrusive change was made in 1954, about which, you would think, all “traditionalists”, “conservatives”, and patriotic purists would be in arms, but they’re not.  In that august year, 1954, at the height of the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria, prodded by lobbying from the staunchly anti-Communist, heavily-Catholic Knights of Columbus, as well as from the socially conservative Daughters of the American Revolution, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding those two little words—“under God”—to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Thus, in spite of the fact that generations of American young people had done just fine reciting a Pledge which included no reference to God; in spite of the fact that the American republic had survived just fine as, simply, “one nation, indivisible”—the words “under God” were added, unquestioned (it was supposed) until the very controversial ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.

It was during the McCarthy period, too, that our national motto was officially changed, from “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one.”) to “In God we trust.”-- once again, to differentiate “us real Americans” from those who “don’t believe”. It’s interesting to note that in both of these cases—for both the Pledge and the motto-- statements emphasizing American unity were, in fact, undermined by additions which sought to divide, separate, and differentiate. Once again, an icon became an idol; a living symbol became little more than a dead letter, repeated second hand.

But that’s America, and that’s history. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not; oftentimes in ways that sadden and anger some of us, and inspire and uplift others of us. Sometimes icons devolve into idols; sometimes they stay strong and true to their deepest meaning, in spite of the ravages of time.

For example, Americans of all persuasions love to sing “America the Beautiful”. In poll after poll, it’s selected as America’s most popular patriotic song—far outstripping the “Star Spangled Banner’, our actual National Anthem (which only became our National Anthem in 1931, you know; it wasn’t brought over by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower; it’ not even mentioned in the Constitution). But everyone loves to sing “America the Beautiful”. We really belted it out as our fist hymn this morning.

But you wonder what people like O’Reilly and Limbaugh would make of that song’s author, were she alive today? Probably not very much.

Katharine Lee Bates was from Massachusetts, after all (a place which some conservatives, even former governors, seem to want to deny is “really American”). Strike one! She was a professor at an exclusive Massachusetts college (and we know how dangerous and elitist and “not really American” woman professors at exclusive Massachusetts colleges can be). Strike two! And—here’s the big one—Strike Three!--  Katharine Lee Bates lived for over twenty-five years in a same-sex relationship, and she and her life partner, Katharine Coman, would probably be legally married, were they alive today in this blessed Commonwealth.

So, the “Pledge of Allegiance” was written by a socialist, and “America the Beautiful” was written by a lesbian. What a magnificent country! That’s America, and all of us Americans, however we see the issues of today, can find something to celebrate in the many facets of the story of this good land.

So I say, God bless us, every one. “God Bless America.” Or, as Woody Guthrie, who hated Irving Berlin’s song so much that he wrote a song of his own to replace it, would have said: “This land was made for you and  me.”


  1. This was the most beautiful thing that I've read in a long time. Thank you.