At the inaugural ceremony for President Biden and Vice President Harris, Jennifer Lopez’s beautiful vocal tribute to America included the line: “This land was made for you and me.”
But was it? Really? Does anyone still believe that? Christian colonizers certainly believed that God made this land we now call America for them, specifically. Woody Guthrie’s song could have been their anthem, the anthem of Manifest Destiny.
Christian colonizers came to these shores with a declaration for the people who were here from time immemorial: “This land now belongs to us. God is giving this land to us.” Popes had said so, in bulls now called the Doctrine of Discovery. The colonizers could turn to each other and declare that this land belonged to “you and me.” That “you,” however, did not include the Native Americans. They were relegated to land the colonizers did not want.
The narrative that God made this land for the Christian colonizers remains deep and broad. The Episcopal Church, who in 2009 renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, still perpetuates the entitlement narrative in their Book of Common Prayer. Their prayer “For our Country,” begins with “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage….” And, even more impactfully, those of us who are descendants of Christian colonizers continue to live as though we believe the land we legally own, that our ancestors participated in taking from the Native Americans, really does belong to us also in some moral sense. And so, also, with the wealth and opportunity that was derived from that land.
This may be changing, ever so slightly. There are some descendants of colonizers and some churches that are returning land or wealth derived from its sale to the Native Nations for whom it was their ancestral home.
Another sign of a shift in perspective is that statues glorifying colonizers are starting to look different to more descendants of colonizers. Statues and monuments that previously seemed innocuous are now seen as expressions of Christian domination. Statues of Junipero Serra are an example. While some of us may not have seen the superiority and domination those statues conveyed, the Native Americans always did.
Now we can see the moral blindness of our ancestors, Christian colonizers who followed the lead of their religion’s teaching of chosenness and laid claim to this beautiful land that was already inhabited by wonderful people. But even deeper in the Christian narrative is the belief that God created the world for us human beings. Of all creation, we are the chosen species. The world and all other living things are here for our benefit. This starting point, we can now see, leads to the doing of great harm to other living things and to the earth itself. Then you add to this the narrative that God chose certain people above others, a narrative that Christianity adopted for itself, and we can now see how Manifest Destiny would result. What these examples have in common is that whomever is dominant is so because of God’s choosing. This is the foundation of Christian Nationalism.
If Woody Guthrie were with us today, with his sensitivity to injustice, I don’t think he would write such a song laying such claims to ownership over a land that was already occupied. When he wrote it in 1940, he was tired of always hearing “God Bless America.” So he wrote something new, a song honoring America that even addressed its injustices in its later verses. But this he did not apparently see that he was perpetuating the colonizers’ claim that this land was made for them, from California to the New York Island. “God blessed America for me,” he even wrote.
This is how moral blinders work, and how moral progress is made. The blind spots of people from former times who we rightly respect are now revealed. May we all have the grace to willingly have our blind spots revealed to us as well. The sooner the better.