Throughout our 9,000-mile journey, we are asking people a simple question: “What does America mean to you?” For best-selling Bible scholar Marcus Borg, that question evokes memories of all the ice cream he could eat on July 4 in the 1940s and it also summons fears for the years ahead.
A new national survey by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker indicates that virtually all Americans say they feel pride in the symbols of our nation, including the flag and national anthem. But we are almost universally worried about our families’ financial future and many issues sharply divide us. So, throughout August, we are stopping along the way to ask about this idea of “America” that summons both love and anxiety.
On the Pacific Coast of Oregon in the tiny town of Oceanside, we interviewed Borg, whose two dozen books about the Bible and Christianity are read in discussion groups in thousands of congregations nationwide. We also talked with his wife, the Rev. Marianne Borg, Canon of the Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.
QUESTION: What does “America” mean to you?
MARIANNE: North America? When I hear the word America, the first thing that pops into my head is that we’re talking about a continent and not just our country. But, when I do think of America as just the United States, the first two ideas that pop into my mind are: land of the free and home of the brave.
I also immediately think of Ellis Island as a symbol of America at our best. We are supposed to welcome people of all kinds. I didn’t come through Ellis Island but I did arrive in the United States when I was 8 years old. I was born in Saudi Arabia because my father worked for a corporation there. When we came to the United States, I soon began to see all of the ethnic and racial and religious tensions here. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and that book had an enormous impact on me. So, I associate America with all of that: the best and the deep divisions as well.
MARCUS: I immediately think of songs from childhood, especially “America the Beautiful” and those opening words: “O beautiful, for spacious skies …” When you ask that little question about what America means to me, the first thing I feel is this wonderfully uncritical adulation from boyhood. For me the two biggest holidays as I was growing up in the 1940s were Christmas and the Fourth of July. Christmas obviously is a big holiday when you’re a child, but the small community of 1,400 where I grew up was Park River in northeastern North Dakota. In that corner of North Dakota, the 4th of July was huge. There always was a parade with bands and color guards of veterans going back to the Spanish-American War at that time. I can still see in my mind the carnival that would come to town and food booths in the city park. My Dad was a creamery owner and ice cream maker so we always had a big tent in the park selling ice cream. I was too young to have to work in the tent, but I got to eat whatever I wanted all day long. There were fireworks in the evening. I experienced no incongruity in my life, at that time, between my absolute love for July 4 and my love for Christmas.
I always will be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in this country that I might not have had in some other countries. Given my family’s modest economic status, for instance, I might not have had an opportunity in other countries to attend university. If we had lived elsewhere, my life might have been quite limited. So, I am grateful for American opportunities.
Now, though, America is so tarnished for me. I grew up in the Civil Rights era and the anti-Vietnam era so I haven’t been an uncritical patriot for a long time, but the last 10 years have been just devastating: the invasion of Iraq, the stupidity of how we’ve handled Afghanistan, the growing gap between rich and poor, the political nastiness of our times and the absolutely unprincipled mendacity of the extreme right. That doesn’t mean I’m bitter or I’ve given up on this country, but, ohhhh my, from what I remember in my earliest years, America is just enormously tarnished for me.
QUESTION: What’s your immediate response when you see the American flag?
MARCUS: If I see it on a car or a house, I wonder if it’s a political statement now, namely a sign that the person showing it is a Tea Partier or a right winger.
MARIANNE: I feel sadness when I see that happening.
MARCUS: Because it’s such a loaded right symbol right now. It carries baggage.
QUESTION: What’s your response to the national anthem?
MARIANNE: I think of baseball.
MARCUS: I have very positive associations with it. I associate national anthems with World War II. I have memories perhaps from old war movies plus real historical events from that era all mixed together into a heroic feeling that opens up the chest with strong emotion. That’s the memory the anthem evokes in me. I stand when I hear the anthem.
But I absolutely love another song, a hymn that begins, “This is my song, O God of all the nations.” When I can see, hear and feel the flag and the national anthem in that kind of context, then I have no problem at all. I feel pride. It’s when the flag and anthem become associated with “My country right or wrong” or some right-wing agenda that they do become troublesome to me now.
Often, as I travel, I’m asked to talk to groups about what it means to be both Christian and American today and what I usually say is that I take issue with the notion that America depends on always being No. 1 in everything: from medals won at the Olympics to worldwide rankings of standard of living. I wonder what it would be like to live in a country that has no pretension that it absolutely must be No. 1 in every aspect of life. Imagine: What would it be like to live in a country that doesn’t assume the world is a constant competition for No. 1 in that way? I’m thinking of countries like Canada or Belgium or take your pick of many countries.
MARIANNE: When I think of the national anthem, I think of the verse that includes “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” That language makes me feel so sad. And the way we celebrate July 4 with fireworks, there are all those associations of war with our country. It pierces my heart to think of war as such a big part of our national symbols.
I am not a doom-ster, although what I have said so far may sound like a downer. But I have real concerns about our world. I’m concerned about our natural world, the environment and our ecological balance. People are living longer, yes, but we also have more cancers, more autism, more challenges to our health around the world. If we don’t make some major new decisions about how we view our world, and our place in the world, I think we’ve got huge problems ahead of us for our children and grandchildren.
I think there’s great hope in human innovation, so I’m not pessimistic overall. But, I feel as though we’re living at the end of a golden age and we had better think carefully about the choices we’re making so that we can survive the next 20 or 30 years.
NOTE: You can order Marcus Borg’s latest book, “Putting Away Childish Things,” from Amazon now.
(Photos and story by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin, who are traveling 40 days and 9,000 miles exploring values that divide and can unite Americans.)
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