Earlier this week I had the occasion to find myself in Newark’s Liberty Airport. I had mentally prepared myself for a government-sponsored groping (I find full-body scanners immoral and, no matter what the Patriot Act says, illegal) but I managed to make it through with just emptying my pockets and walking around in my stocking feet. Once I arrived at the gate area, I was once again struck by the duplicitous use of religion in America. Posted above each gate was a small banner reading “God Bless America” surrounding a stylized flag. I thought of the Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists flying out of that terminal (and in Newark I am certain there were all three species, in spades). Since 9/11 the staffs of the large New York City airports are justifiably cautious, but the blending of nationalism with divine will always makes me nervous. Especially since the weightier implications are so readily ignored.
In the biblical world the ideal was that travelers would be treated fairly. Someone away from home is already at a disadvantage. In ancient times the traveler deserved special consideration, not to be swindled or met with unfairness. Looking around at the prices merchants charge for those who’ve gone beyond the gate and have no choice, it struck me how when religion and economy collide, economy always continues on unscathed. The weary traveler, according to the Bible, especially deserves fair treatment. Charging extra to someone already at a disadvantage violates just about every biblical standard that echoes through those unread pages. God bless America? Only if it fills the coffers.
The sentiment expressed in “God bless America” is vastly at odds with the way we behave. Taking advantage of others is the bane of prophets and messiahs alike. Taking care of the poor, the disadvantaged, the traveler—this is the biblical ideal. Instead it is easier to band-aid over our sins with posters asking God’s blessing on our insincerity. Many people fear Islamic fundamentalists without taking into account the more subtle damage done by our own homegrown variety, giddily holding hands with an unfettered free market. Cheating the traveler may not be as wicked as blowing up an airplane, but both these tangled vines, in the biblical view, spring from the same root.