From the Editor: May Day
During the Divinity School’s Faith and Citizenship conference last May, something unexpected happened.
Near the end of the event, at the morning worship service in Marquand Chapel, people were in tears.
The trigger for this surge of moistened eyes (mine included) was the hymn we sang before the benediction. “This Is My Song,” set to Sibelius’s Finlandia, sneaks up on its victims. Escorted by the tune’s dignified cadences are the words, written in the 1930s by Lloyd Stone, including:
This is my home, the country where my heart is; Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; But other hearts in other lands are beating With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine. But other lands have sunlight too and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for their land and for mine.
The lyrics unleashed such emotion, I suspect, because they touched a deep dream that many quietly harbor—not just a dream of peace, but an empathy for nameless others that transcends the prerogatives of nationhood, a dream of affectionate community inspired by the gospel. For the record, we can’t normally concede that other peoples might have dreams as legitimate as ours. Nationalist pride makes any such concession unpatriotic, dangerous in a time of war. Surely no politician in an election year (or any other) could risk singing “This Is My Song” on a public stage.
But on that May morning, a hymn briefly made solidarity with the dream. Earlier, the conference’s panels and keynoters had probed the intricate interplay of theology and nationalism, faith and public life, in this era of ritual polarization and ideological religion. Perhaps the heartache at worship time came because we citizens feel trapped by our jittery, aggressive public rhetoric, hesitant to speak a song’s pan-humanistic notions aloud. The hymn’s internationalism reminds us how parochial our locally realized paradigms are—the media’s incapacity, or the church’s unwillingness, to rise above apocalyptic fears or prayers for preserving strictly our own way of life. The tears that morning registered a sense of loss, the squandering of good will at the hands of workaday anxiety and distrust. Instead, we cope with a debilitating daily contradiction: political fear runs neck and neck with the gospel message of reconciliation.
But there may be gain at least in the acknowledgment of loss. It measures the grief that people of faith carry for the failure of their ideals. The grief can define a way forward. This issue of Reflections explores some of those ideals—the meaning of citizenship in a globalized world, the responsibilities of Christian faith in democratic life, the prospect for truth-telling and religious humility in the public realm—against the battering pressures of 24/7 news, political expediency, the temptations of power.
The photos you find in these pages provide a parallel narrative, a glimpse at the past, the ways religion declared itself in public life in the 1930s and ’40s. The pictures at first suggest a frictionless time when the American landscape was less crowded— fewer viewpoints, fewer religions. But no doubt this “simpler time” was not how people experienced life then. It was a moment of great conflict, deprivation, and uncertainty. Hitler and Stalin were rising menaces abroad, while deep worry at home confronted Americans with the prospect that their economic system was failing in the Great Depression.
The photos in this edition of Reflections were selected from the vast gallery of photographs sponsored by the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s and preserved by the Library of Congress. The project, overseen by the federal Farm Security Administration, recruited accomplished photographers in the cause of illuminating the daily life and faith practices of Americans in a time of economic upheaval and social dislocation.
Several photos shown here are featured in the fascinating 2004 book Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression by scholar Colleen McDannell (Yale University Press). The book tells the neglected story of the project and the photographers who elevated a government assignment to artistic permanence. The author ponders the ways religion penetrated public life two generations ago, as witnessed and perceived by some remarkable photographers. The government’s aim was to shore up enthusiasm for President Roosevelt’s New Deal by highlighting the routines and the dignity of ordinary citizens who had otherwise been ignored by the nation’s powerbrokers.
“Religion” seventy years ago meant Christianity, with Judaism shyly on the periphery. The government photos capture the last moments in America before the unstoppable diversity after World War II changed the nation’s thinking about civic fairness, equality before the law, and the marketplace of spiritual truth. Ever since, faith and citizenship have been circling each other—testing each other—in the arenas of courtroom, classroom, sanctuary, and public opinion. Happily, the complicated issues are sometimes clarified by thoughtful, feisty panelists at a Yale conference; other times, by sudden tears in a worship setting.