August 14th, 2010
10:05 AM ET

The House I Live In

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://blogs.cnn.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/52/2010/08/813229.jpg width=292 height=320]

Earlier this month I wrote about ill will in several parts of the country toward planned construction of mosques.  I had not figured on writing anything more related to this subject until I heard a recording of Frank Sinatra singing "The House I Live In" while driving to work.

What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see?
A certain word, "democracy"?
What is America to me?

"The House I Live In" is a departure from the better-known swinging tunes and torch song repertoire of the crooner sometimes referred to as the "The Voice." The song was the centerpiece of a 10-minute, black-and-white film of the same name released in 1945 to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the aftermath of World War II. Here Sinatra teaches a group of boys a lesson in religious tolerance. The lyrics were penned by Abel Meeropol, under the pen name Lewis Allen. (The name Meeropol became better known when he adopted Michael and Robert, the sons orphaned by the 1953 executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted on espionage-related charges involving atomic bomb secrets.) The music was written by Earl Robinson, who later was 'blacklisted' during the anti-Communist fever of the early 1950s.

The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet
The children in the playground, the faces that I see
All races and religions, that's America to me

"All races and religions." Since the song was written, laws have been implemented to prevent discrimination based on skin color when buying or renting a house, being served in a restaurant or voting. In that time, the loyalty to his country of a Catholic running for President was questioned publicly, churches and synagogues were burned and bombed and – now – a growing and geographically expanding Muslim community confronts opposition and often hostility in creating places to worship.

The place I work in, the worker by my side
The little town or city where my people lived and died
The "howdy" and the handshake, the air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out, that's America to me

America in 2010 is different in many ways from that of 1945; more urban, more diverse racially, ethnically and religiously. By mid-21st century, we are told, there no longer will be any racial majority group.

The things I see about me, the big things and the small
The little corner newsstand and the house a mile tall
The wedding in the churchyard, the laughter and the tears
The dream that's been a-growin' for a hundred and fifty years

As I was writing this, I came across reports of an Islamic community center recently opened in the Santaluz area of San Diego, California. I may have missed something but I did not find reports of court fights or rallies opposing the facility. Before the ribbon cutting, Anita Tallman, spokesman for the Muslim Community Center of Greater San Diego said, "The focus of our center is on being American Muslims as most of our members are either born and raised in the United States or have spent the majority of their lives in this country."

The town I live in, the street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city, or a garden all in bloom
The church, the school, the clubhouse, the millions lights I see
But especially the people
That's America to me

There was a second verse to the song, not included in the film, part of which made mention of:

The house I live in,
My neighbors white and black,
The people who just came here,
Or from generations back
. . .
That's America to me

Considering the divisions in America that persist today over such issues as race, religion, ethnicity and immigration, "The House I Live In" seems no less relevant today than when it was written.

Filed under: David Schechter • Religion
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Vivien, NYC

    If this Muslim group is a peaceful well-meaning one not financed by extremists it should be allowed to build a Islamic community center as was done in San Diego. But freedom of religion does not and should not include beliefs that promote violence and bigotry. If a Ku Klux Clan or Nazi group wanted to build a place of worship, there would certainly be strong objection.

    I do think the site is an inappropriate one and I also think calling it a mosque is unnecessarily provocative. Call it the Islamic Peace Center of America (IPCA like YMCA).

    August 14, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Augsbee

    Seriously, as ugly as this sounds we have to ask ourselves, how do we know this is not a Mosque built to honor the killers from 911???????? I can see government wants it because the building is $100 million and it will increase property value & local taxes.
    We keep putting this on Freedom of Religion but it is not about Freedom of Religion, it is about Muslims sticking it to us. Of course, on the other hand this is also typical behavior some many of us have come to know of Muslims being unfriendly, cold, uncaring, insensitive, rude and self centered to all people not just Americans.

    August 14, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  3. BRMinCA

    People see what they want to see in things and always will. Muslim extremists do not represent ALL Muslims nor do KKK members represent ALL Christians. Maybe we need to all be reminded of what makes our country special – freedom of many forms. Interesting article Anderson.

    August 14, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  4. Eric in Ohio

    If only the intolerant would read and comprehend this. We can only hope this gets through a few thick skulls.
    Thanks for sharing.

    August 14, 2010 at 11:57 am |
  5. Kalohe

    If they want a mosque, fine. Let them put it there. A true Muslim is not violent. I've worked at the State Department with several of them, and they're awesome people. It's been like 9 yrs since the attack, and we've done nothing with the land.
    Every religion has crazies that take it a little too far. I think us, as Americans, just need to move on. 9/11 may have simply been Afghanistan hates America, not Muslims. If we hold onto fear, and hatred about something that happened 9 yrs ago, then we're really not this strong country we claim to be.
    Freedom of religion. We don't let Muslims have their place of worship, then Catholics, and Lutherans may lose theirs next.

    August 14, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  6. Ronnie

    I'm afraid what "American means to me" right now is expressed by James Poniewozik in the 8/23 issue of Time. Basically what he is saying is Americans no longer believe the "The Truth shall sent us free" but comfort themselves with the lies of tea-partyiers. I find his words truly upsetting – but I know they're true – it's the truest statement of the sickness that has overcome this nation –

    August 14, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  7. Kirk W. Fraser

    "All races and religions, that's America to me" is bogus! All races fine, but founders expected everyone to see the light and become Christian eventually. The melting pot is to produce Christians, not a witches brew of dead and dying cultures. Anyone who insists on practicing Islam should feel free to do in in another country. Anyone who is not Christian is unAmerican.

    August 14, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  8. Augsbee

    Excuses, excuses, excuses, give it a rest!!!!!! This is nothing about freedom of religion, freedom of speech. This is about giving us people a slap across the face by building a Mosque near the place were 100's of people (American & Non-American) were MURDERED!!!!!!
    This is about Muslims being insensitive, cruel, to us all and telling us they can use our freedom of religion, freedom of speech against us to get what they want because their want is more important than our feelings. This is about building a Mosque in an attempt to get us to forget 911, to minimize the attack on our country as if to say Life goes on, what is in the past is in the past, get over it.

    August 14, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  9. diya

    the past has been written, and nothing will ever change it. let's put 'hope over fear' in this issue. let's be brave to let it go and move forward to a better future for all of us. it might be hard, but i personally think that it's worth a try.

    August 14, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  10. Paige Colson

    Iagree that one of the great things about being an American is having the right to worship in the way you want to. I also think that it is importamt to show respect and compassion for those whose religious beliefs you don't agree with. If I were to visit a mosque I would wear a head covering and sit in the women's section even though I do not believe those things are necessary to worship God. I do not think that the group who is wanting to build a mosque near the spot where the World Trade Center was bombed is showing compassion to the families who lost loved ones at the habds of Muslim extremists. I have no problem with mosques being builtI just don't understand wgy that is the only spot in all of NYC where the mosque can be built.

    August 14, 2010 at 10:53 am |
  11. NYer trying to be tolerant

    I question the sensitivity and sincerity of the group that wants to place a mosque near the site of Ground Zero. After all Ground Zero exists because Muslim religious intolerants waged an attack there. Its like saying we destroyed your people here and now we are placing a symbol of our dominance. Put up a building for an interfaith community, an institute to facilitate religious cooperation and understanding but no mosque – anywhere else but no there.

    August 14, 2010 at 10:29 am |
  12. James in Idaho

    Ol Blue Eyes sure knew what he was talking about. People could take a lesson if they had any respect any more.

    August 14, 2010 at 10:09 am |