America is a nation in need of grace

The people of this country need to receive it, show it and share it

On Inauguration Day, Jennifer Lopez took to the steps of the United States Capitol and sang the time-honored classic, “America the Beautiful.” It was beautiful, as beautiful as it has ever been in so many inaugural moments. The words and melody still ring true. The prayerful plea, “God shed His grace on thee,” more striking, more powerful and more important than ever. 

America is a nation in need of grace. The people of this country need to receive it, show it and share it.

A friend reminded me that grace has many meanings. We often think of grace as having elegance and poise, courtesy and civility. This kind of grace has little to do with wealth, prominence or elite education. I have seen elegance in the noble way a teacher bends down to help a struggling student and how a middle-aged child cares for an aging parent. I have watched poise in the restraint of those, who in the heat of an argument, give grace through a soft reply. I have observed courtesy extended by brilliant women and men who listen so intently that they elevate the talker or teacher, even when they already know what will be said. 

This type of grace is difficult to see or sense with the rage of angry voices, physical or verbal assaults or the kind of contempt that crushes communities and grieves the soul of the nation. Lacking grace, we have seen an increase in actions, openly hostile or deceptively subtle. Those audaciously brazen enough to violate sacred spaces — whether in our capitols, our houses of worship, our homes or our digital screens — are not exhibiting any form of grace.

Grace creates space for healing and unity. That kind of grace won’t come easy. It is won one day, one interaction, one moment at a time. Neither President Joe Biden pushing executive orders nor Sean Hannity calling the president’s first week in office an abject failure allow for grace. Shouting matches on cable news, road rage or the incessant mocking and demonizing of those we disagree with does not demonstrate or create space for the grace that can heal.

A word to the president: You don’t get to good governance by executive order
What happened on Inauguration Day 2021? How everything unfolded

America! America! God shed His grace on thee.  

In the early days of the pandemic, and every day since, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has reminded the residents of the city that maintaining social distance from each other demands that we show an increase of social grace.

Part of what must transcend our politics, our personal relationships and our communities is the kind of grace that allows us to see beyond the insignificant. We spend far too much time hyperventilating about trivial matters.

Judith Martin, better known by her pen name Miss Manners, has spent her career writing about etiquette, manners and social grace. She once wrote, “Allowing an unimportant mistake to pass without a comment is a wonderful social grace.” Miss Manners then humorously cautioned, “Children who have the habit of constantly correcting should be stopped before they grow up to drive spouses and everyone else crazy by interrupting stories to say, ‘No, dear — it was Tuesday, not Wednesday.’”

Patriot dreams, “that see beyond the years,” begin by seeing beyond the insignificant and instead seeing deeply with an eye of grace.

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the need for such grace when he spoke at Brigham Young University in 2020. He said, “We have entered an age of bad generalization. We don’t see each other well. We do not see the heart and soul of each person, only a bunch of bad labels. To me, this is the core problem that our democratic character is faced with. Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone. People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension. Employees feeling invisible at work. Husbands and wives living in broken marriages, realizing that the person who should know them best actually has no clue.”

Brooks concluded, “We all have to get a little better at seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen.” That is the beginning of grace.

What a conservative New York Times columnist had to say to BYU students

America! America! God shed His grace on thee.  

Across religious and faith traditions, the idea of grace is central to redeeming imperfect people and reconciling them to their divine nature. Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, showed how within the Christian tradition the atoning sacrifice of Jesus impacted the world. “When all is said and done, when all of history is examined, when the deepest depths of the human mind have been explored, there is nothing so wonderful, so majestic, so tremendous as this act of grace.”

Individually we are all a little broken. There are no perfect people. We are all in need of redemption from mistakes and offenses. Imperfect people, employees, bosses, spouses and friends need grace that is both human and divine. As a nation we are also and imperfect and broken. Restoring and strengthening the soul of America requires every citizen and all institutions of government to find grace and the step forward.

The inspiring words from youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem provide hope for grace:

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade

We’ve braved the belly of the beast

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace

And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn’t always just-ice

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished.

We often quote Abraham Lincoln as one who may have been outwardly awkward in size, demeanor and social sophistication, yet he understood that need for the nation to find grace. In 1861, he created the space and place for grace declaring, We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 

In a profound piece in the “Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy,” Judge Thomas B. Griffith, then serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, addressed grace in the form of civic charity, including Lincoln’s call for bonds of affection. Judge Griffith wrote, “What then of our current moment? How strong are our ‘bonds of affection’? The Constitution’s form of government not only allows spirited disagreement, it requires it. But the Constitution cannot withstand a citizenry whose debates are filled with contempt for one another.” 

Judge Griffith included an observation from columnist Michael Gerson: “The heroes of America are heroes of unity. Our political system is designed for vigorous disagreement. It is not designed for irreconcilable contempt. Such contempt loosens the ties of citizenship and undermines the idea of patriotism.” Judge Griffith concluded, “The Constitution anticipates instead a citizenship whose ‘bonds of affection’ cross regional, religious, racial and ideological boundaries. For the Constitution to succeed, We the People must unite to create a society based on shared values.”

One additional form of grace is found in an additional bit of time graciously granted. The “grace period” given to one whose payment is due is a good example. It is an act that comes without penalty, judgement or retribution. Imagine what would happen in our individual and collective relationships if we simply granted people some additional time, or if we withheld our judgement, restrained our anger or frustration for long enough to discover there was more at play than we had supposed. 

America needs a grace period — a chance to exhale and to forgive, a moment to remember what unites us and why we are united. Rather than condemning America as a nation irredeemable we each should take advantage of the grace period granted to us, today, to create a union more perfect and indivisible. That space for grace will allow us to hear the mystic chords of memory, repair our faults and failings and strengthen our bonds of affection. 

America is a nation in need of grace. The people of this country need to receive it, show it and share it.

America! America! God shed His grace on thee.