Some area religious leaders decry nationalistic ferver
"God bless America!"
It's a slogan seen on car bumpers and shop windows, billboards and banners in the weeks since the Sept. 11 assault on this nation's domestic tranquility.
A message of unity for many, it is an omen of isolationism for some. And some have mixed feelings about the sentiment.
" 'God Bless America' drives me nuts, it's so nationalistic," said Nathan Stone, minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Waco. "It implies the supreme being should favor us, to the exclusion of everyone else. I certainly want the blessing of whomever is blessing us, but I think it goes across the board.
While many houses of worship in Waco and across the nation are unabashedly patriotic — flying the red, white and blue or proclaiming the Lord's protection is upon them — some faith groups are adopting a different posture.
Joe Gatlin, pastor of Hope Fellowship, a Waco-based community of about 40 who follow the Mennonite path, said, "We don't buy into nationalism. Our allegiance is to Jesus Christ. It comes first and foremost. As the body of Christ we want to embrace our brothers and sisters.
"We certainly have respect for nations and states — it's part of the reality of the world. But our allegiance to Jesus Christ calls us not to participate in war (but) to devote our energies to peace efforts." Especially at times such as these, Gatlin added, when many Americans are agitating for action, people who believe as he need to be "witnesses for peace."
Hope Fellowship, which had been devoting a year of Gospel study to peace issues, wants to organize a Christian Peace Conference for the spring. While fellowship members might be out of step with the rest of county's patriotic march toward military action, Gatlin said, Mennonites generally are more willing to accept suffering and death than dish out the same.
The Baha'i Community of Waco follows the teachings of the 19th century Persian prophet Baha'u'llah (Beloved of God) who preached the oneness of humanity and spiritual equality.
"Baha'is are sickened by the violence," said Tim Welter, one of about 20 active Baha'i members who meet at 11 a.m. Sundays at 25th Street and Bosque Boulevard. "Certainly, America has the right to defend itself. But we look at the necessity of people coming together rather than pulling apart."
Generally, Baha'is believe that while they must obey the laws of the lands they live in, their "citizenship" of the world is a greater calling, he said.
"The problem with nationhood and nationalism is that 'them versus us' conflicts arise," Welter said. "We are one race, the human race, and the only way to a lasting peace is to recognize the personhood of all."
The United States, he said, is eaten through by racial prejudice, but the Islamic world is riddled with religious intolerance — so God's blessings are needed in both realms. Both sides have dominant religions that call for love but that have been twisted by fundamentalists to justify their own agendas, Welter said.
Put another way:
"We believe we have God on our side, and they believe God is on their side," said Derek Davis, director of church/state studies at Baylor University. "Americans believe this country offers the best of what God wants on this earth."
Some 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, Davis said. "We've always been a country that felt grounded in Christianity, yet we open our gates and are very pluralistic as a society."
He said he wasn't surprised that churches, synagogues, temples and mosques were packed with the faithful the weekend after the terrorist strikes. "People want to get close to the place they believe God is," Davis said. "We are calling upon these centuries-old beliefs that God has favored us as a nation, that we're sort of the apple of his eye."
In their quest for safety, security and shelter after the disorienting attacks Sept. 11, Davis said, Americans are rallying around comfortable, familiar icons of our civic religion, such as the flag or the bald eagle.
"These are broad, generic symbols we as a nation do not feel violate the separation of church and state. These are symbols that everyone can tap into and feel good about."
Stone said, "I do think it is a natural patriotic response for these times and I do get a lump in my throat when I hear 'God Bless America' sung, and I get teary-eyed when I sing that song. My beef is with a nationalism that forgets that others, especially the innocents in the rest of the world, also need the blessings of God."
Terri Jo Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or at 757-5746.
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