God Bless America…and Everyone Else
by Crystal Young-Otterstrom
The following is a talk I gave last Sunday in my ward in Salt Lake City, Utah. I thought our readers on Mormon Press might enjoy giving it a read. What follows has a few edits that are different from what I read in church.
When [my bishopric member] asked my husband and I to speak a couple of weeks ago on the topic of patriotism/America is a choice land/4th of July, etc., I laughed and replied, “Are you sure you want us to talk about that subject? You might not like what we have to say on the topic.” But [my bishopric member] is a good person and he said that he would love to hear what we have to say on this topic. So here we go.
Typically among American Mormons, this talk goes something like this: “America is a choice land, the greatest land, a land that only certain special, righteous people are led to in order to create a land of freedom for its inhabitants. When they didn’t live righteously, they got destroyed. God led the Jaredites here, they got destroyed. God led the Nephites and their cousins the Lamanites here; the Lamanites were left standing and the Nephites got destroyed. God led Christopher Columbus who brought Europeans here, some of whom became the inspired founding fathers.* These inspired founding fathers led a rebellion against England, wrote the Constitution, made America the greatest and most blessed country in the world, a country based on religious freedom that allowed Joseph Smith to restore the Mormon faith, and if this country doesn’t get back to being righteous and moral, we’re going to get destroyed just like the Jaredites and Nephites.”
* Even though the majority of our founding fathers were deists which is basically enlightenment for agnostic or atheist, but hey, agnostic and atheist people have as much of a right to inspiration as do believers!
Well, this won’t be a surprise to anyone in this ward who knows me well, but my talk isn’t going to be that talk.
I want to start with reading a few quotes:
Ezra Taft Benson: “We, the blessed beneficiaries of the Constitution, face difficult days in America, 'a land which is choice above all other lands” (Ether 2:10).'" Elsewhere, he said, “I testify that America is a choice land. (See 2 Nephi 1:5.) God raised up the founding fathers of the United States of America and established the inspired Constitution. (See D&C 101:77–80.) This was the required prologue for the restoration of the gospel. (See 3 Nephi 21:4.) America will be a blessed land unto the righteous forever, and is the base from which God will continue to direct the worldwide latter-day operations of His kingdom. (See 2 Nephi 1:7.)”
President Hunter: "'And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.' [2 Nephi 26:33] From this statement it is clear that all men are invited to come unto him and all are alike unto him. Race makes no difference; color makes no difference; nationality makes no difference. The brotherhood of man is literal. We are all of one blood and the literal spirit offspring of our eternal Heavenly Father. Before we came to earth, we belonged to his eternal family. We associated and knew each other there. Our common paternity makes us not only literal sons and daughters of eternal parentage, but literal brothers and sisters as well. This is a fundamental teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Elder Sitati: (who is African) "The love of our Father in Heaven has been evident as the way has been opened for all living and dead of every nation, now and in the future, to receive exaltation in His presence, according to the exercise of their agency....God has reaffirmed that He is no respecter of persons."
Some of these statements seem to contradict the other. Is it possible that America is both a choice land above all others and yet God is also no respecter of persons? Is one of these speakers wrong and the others right? Is one simply a product of their times? Or is possible that all are right, to a degree?
Elder Holland said: “America is such a place, but of course it wasn’t always called America nor has it always been identified by a distinctive continental shape.… It has not always looked the same geographically nor has it always been governed the same politically. But that all seems appropriate since the meaning of America, in its most theological sense, is something more than borders and boundaries, something above nativism and nationalism. It is an ideal, a thing of the spirit.”
Let's talk about the concept that the American ideal is blessed. If so, any nation or people that holds that ideal is also blessed, not just America. Here are a few characteristics of this ideal.
Choice lands are homes for immigrants & the oppressed
First, here are two quotes.
Elder Paul H. Dunn " We are immigrants, you and I, because the Lord made immigrants of us and brought us here [meaning America].”
President John Taylor: “When the people have torn to shreds the Constitution of the United States the Elders of Israel will be found holding it up to the nations of the earth and proclaiming liberty and equal rights to all men, and extending the hand of fellowship to the oppressed of all nations. This is part of the program” (Journal of Discourses, 21:8).
Does anyone else here irony there? I mean, the elders of Israel once banned an entire race from participating in our priesthood and still today works constantly to enshrine many of our religious beliefs into law. Yet, John Taylor says that these same elders will proclaim and equal rights to all men and extend the hand of fellowship to the oppressed of all nations. Choice lands extend that hand of fellowship to all, especially the oppressed.
Choice lands are welcoming to immigrants. Today, it is nearly impossible to immigrate legally to this country. It is even impossible for citizens of some counties to even visit this country.
We don't extend a hand to the oppressed when we deny entry to refugees. We don't extend a hand to the oppressed when we fail to give our poor a hand up that helps them reach self-sufficiency later in life.
So if we in America haven't fulfilled that vision of welcoming immigrants, freeing all from bondage, in our country’s past and even our present, perhaps it is a vision that all of us can yet work together to fulfill. We can make this or any nation a choice land when we extend a hand to immigrants, refugees, and the oppressed.
How are some ways that the sisters and elders of Israel, we members of the LDS church, proclaim liberty and equal rights? How can we extend a hand to the oppressed? We can dive into fulfilling civic duty and become a part of lawmaking.
Choice lands are free
An ancient prophet described another the ideals of choice lands, freedom:
“This is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ.” (Ether 2:12.)
“Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.” (2 Ne. 1:6–7.)
Both define the choice land as a land free from bondage, and yet this current version of America was not free from bondage at its founding. This country did not begin with all of its people free from bondage. That history remains a stain that we have yet to correct.
So is this a promise of freedom from bondage only about the land of America specifically? I think freedom is a path for any land to become a choice land. While this country (America) is in many ways free, and even perhaps, the most free country, it is still not free from bondage or equal, for all of its citizens.
We don't proclaim liberty and equal rights when we make our laws match our Scripture at the expense of anothers' Scripture or lack of religious belief. Even when done from the noble ideal of spreading greater morality throughout the land, forcing people to be good, live righteously, and make moral choices was not Christ's plan in the premortal world. It was Satan's plan. We Latter-day Saints believe that we waged a war over this right to make this choices, this right to make mistakes. We believe that all who have and will ever live on the earth made the choice to follow christ's plan, make choices, and effectually, all fail to some extent because we all make wrong choices at some point in our life. Thankfully, the atonement allows us to erase our mistakes and move forward. But how ironic is it--that we Latter-day Saints who know this history of our premortal life--often work so hard to implement Satan's plan on earth and take away choices in the name of morality.
Choice lands serve the Lord, by following his commandments
Let's read this scripture again: “Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.” (2 Ne. 1:6–7.)
Now as I’ve already stated, forcing citizens to live all of the laws of God by enshrining them into law is essentially the same as Satan’s plan. So rather than forcing people to follow the laws of God, are there other ways to encourage others to serve our Heavenly Parents and follow their commandments?
We can be living examples. We can work to allow our lives to be living beacons to the first and second greatest commandments: love the lord, love our neighbors as ourselves. Elder Neal A Maxwell: “In the same vein, God’s second commandment, love thy neighbor, clearly leaves no room for racism.”
We can serve one another as a giant PSA encouraging all to live the first and second greatest commandments, rather than forcing them to live the commandments by enshrining those commandments into law. We can walk and talk with those who walk and talk differently from us, because Jesus walked with all of us. We can serve through visiting and home teaching, AND we can serve our neighbors who aren’t members of our congregation.
America of Yore is not Better than America of Now
Here's an illustrative statement of the idea that somehow modern society is failing the American ideal. L. Tom Perry: “I look around this great land of the free in which we are living and find some very definite signs of the decay that is beginning to occur. Corruption, crime, dishonesty, immorality, pollution, laziness, devotion only to special interests are signs which precede the fall.”
A common theme in talks about "America is the greatest ever" is that America today is not as great as America of yore. Somehow today we are failing ideal America at its founding. Now yes in some ways we are less free (Patriot Act?!), but in many other ways we freer. And indeed how free was this America of yore? The majority of its citizens could note vote because they were either the wrong gender or weren't wealthy landowners. And entire race of Americans were enslaved and forced to serve their fellow Americans for free. This nation's original inhabitants were cast out from their lands and driven nearly to extinction. Native Americans today still don't have the same access to schools, doctors, and many of the vital services that the rest of America provides. The Americans of yore drove many of our ancestors out of their country and into what was then Mexico because we were unable to practice religious freedom in America, the land of the free. Of course, this land is now the state of utah within the US, but it wasn't when many of our ancestors settled it.
Joel and I have a favorite movie, Head of State that stars Chris Rock. His character is Mays Gilliam, an alderman from Washington D.C., who is surprisingly picked to be a candidate for president when his party’s candidate dies. Gilliam’s campaign is unexpected and in many ways, unorthodox. His opponent closes all speeches with a line: "God bless America, and no place else.” Towards the end of the movie, Gilliam gives a great closing argument in a campaign debate that I will paraphrase in places to make it Church appropriate.
“‘God bless America, and no place else.’ [And] isn't it obvious that God has blessed America? America is the richest, most powerful nation on earth. If America was a woman, it would be a [well-endowed] woman. And everybody loves a [well-endowed] woman! So, in closing….I’d like to say you are full of [baloney]. ‘God bless America, and no place else.’ How about ‘God bless Haiti’ or ‘God bless Africa’? How about ‘God bless Jamaica’? I'm not talking about Jamaica, the beach tribes you all love. I'm talking about stabbing Jamaica. That's what I'm talking about. So, tonight I want to say: "God bless America, and everybody else!” The whole world!"
When we give the "America is blessed, America is a choice land, America is a promised land above all others" kind of talk, all to often it sounds to un-American ears as the same as saying, “God Bless America and No One Else.” It sounds a lot like those Zoramites up on their Rameumpton in chapter 31 of Alma, “ thanking their God that they were chosen of him,” talking about how better they were than everyone else. That’s not right. God who is no respecter of persons works in every country, every people, every race, every gender, every identity, and even, every sexuality. God blesses America, and blesses everyone else. God’s message of love, reconciliation, and Atonement, are available to all.
Let us work to adjust our language and our actions to communicate, God bless America, and everyone else. Not just, God bless some of us.
“The purpose of America was to provide a setting wherein that was possible. All else takes its power from that one great, central purpose.” (Ensign, Nov. 1975, p. 54.) Paul h Dunn
Acts 10: 9-35, selected verses.
9 ¶ On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour:
10 And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready [to eat], he fell into a trance,
11 And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth:
12 Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
13 And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.
14 But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.
15 And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
16 This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
17 Now while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate,
[let’s pause and make the note that Cornelius was a Gentile, considered unclean in Peter’s version of Judaism, and yet Cornelius was commanded by God in a vision to find Peter.]
18 And called, and asked whether Simon, which was surnamed Peter, were lodged there.
19 ¶ While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold, three men seek thee.
20 Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them.
27 And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together.
28 And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
34 ¶ Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:
35 But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.
The destiny of America was divinely decreed. The events which established our great nation were foreknown to God and revealed to prophets of old. As in an enacted drama, the players who came on the scene were rehearsed and selected for their parts. Their talents, abilities, capacities, and weaknesses were known before they were born
Hinckley: "I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ," said President Hinckley. "How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?”
Mormons believe Eden was in Missouri and yet we know life began in Africa.
President Brigham Young spoke for himself and for every living prophet who has addressed the question since when he said, “The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were inspired from on high to do that work.” (Journal of Discourses, 7:14.)
The first witness I would call for would be Brigham Young, who said: “Will the Constitution be destroyed? No: It will be held inviolate by this people” ; and, as Joseph Smith said, “The time will come when the destiny of this nation will hang upon a single thread. At that critical juncture, this people will step forth and save it from the threatened destruction. It will be so” (Journal of Discourses, 7:15)