'O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain...' So begins one of the best loved patriotic songs in the United States, America the beautiful.
And who could argue with that? The natural grandeur of much of the US, whether it's Yosemite Park, the Grand Canyon, or the Niagara Falls – to name but a few – is simply staggering. But read on through the first verse of that hymn, and we find it concludes with a prayer that God would 'shed His grace' on the country, and 'crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!'
And in these terms, right now, America is not a pretty sight. To state the obvious, there doesn't seem to be much brotherhood or sisterhood around. Instead, the US looks ever more divided and ever more violent in its language. It's more America the Baleful – with differing groups engaged in an increasingly bitter war of words.
Examples abound. We have Donald Trump, just a few hours after the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre, laying into Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren in terms more befitting a playground than a president. Equally, we could also point to what was described on CNN as the 'false, nasty, vulgar, personal, uncivil verbal abuse' of Republican Senator Susan Collins in the run-up to the vote on Brett Kavanaugh.
And America's verbal cesspool seems to be getting worse. A while back, Scientific American published an article describing how 'Republicans think of Democrats as godless, unpatriotic...elitist latte guzzlers, whereas Democrats dismiss Republicans as ignorant...gun-fondling religious fanatics'. It suggested there were some interesting psychological factors at play, and posited that some simple insights from science could help reduce antagonism.
But that was in 2012, long before the further ghastly deterioration of the Trump era. David N Myers, professor of Jewish History at the University of California, said on Monday this week: 'There is a toxic culture of vilification and demonisation that has pervaded American political culture in recent years. Donald Trump did not invent that toxic culture but he has certainly stirred the pot considerably.' The close association of some evangelical Christians with this president is heart-breaking.
Words matter. In the New Testament book of James, the writer gives us some stark pictures of the enormous potential ramifications of our speech. He says the human tongue has the potential to be:
1. A forest fire: James makes the obvious comment that 'how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire'. And, he says, 'the tongue is a fire'. America is ablaze right now.
2. A deadly poison: In case we didn't get that picture clearly, James goes on to say that while 'every species of beast and bird...can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, no-one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison'. And in 2018, America is saturated with verbal venom.
What's the answer? James gives us two very practical solutions:
1. A call to wake up: 'If anyone thinks they are religious,' he says, 'and do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless'. Ouch. Did you get that? 'Worthless'. What do your Twitter, e-mail and Facebook accounts (and so on) say about your religion? What do they say about the professed faith of your local congressmen and women?
2. A call to slow down: 'Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,' James says, 'for your anger does not produce God's righteousness'. Some e-mails or tweets may be good to write – but not to send. Slow down. Pause. Reflect. Listen. Maybe – just maybe – that person you detest on the opposite side of the political divide is actually saying something worth hearing. Who knows, they might even be right about some things.
These things are hard. I know that from personal experience. Many years ago after a college lecture where I had been particularly vituperative towards the speaker in public questioning, a friend said to me, 'You can destroy someone with a sentence'. Not only was it damningly true, but I was even proud of what he said. Over time, however, his words percolated into my soul and prompted a heartfelt desire to change. But it's not easy. We are all work in progress.
The song America the beautiful goes on to express the wish for the US that God might 'mend thine every flaw' and 'confirm thy soul in self-control'. It's easy for us all to think the answer is for others to change. But change starts with us. So why not pray for yourself that God would tame your tongue and confirm your own soul in self-control, to use the hymn's words? And then, by all means, pray for others, including politicians – both those you support and oppose.
So may God bless America. And may God have mercy on it too – 'from sea to shining sea'.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A