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The American House We Live In

by on June 30, 2016 6:00 AM

There is a song that I heard many years ago that I think about from time to time, particularly on July 4th weekend. The song “The House I Live In” was made famous by Frank Sinatra. It is wonderful for its universal simplicity invoking imagery of places found to be in almost every town in this country.

Decades ago he sang about the faces that he sees “all races and religions that’s America to me.” He sings about the grocer and the butcher, of children in the playground and of the right to speak your mind out.

But do the lyrics ring true today?

All races and religions is a concept that is under attack. We respond to campaign rhetoric pitting one group against another demonizing those we see as somehow different. Many see a racism that is ascendant after years of progress. There is a media narrative that promotes conflict between groups because it sells.

Sinatra sings of the children in the playground conjuring images in our minds of our childhood or our children on swings or jumping rope or playing ball. But does your mind see children taking cover when gunfire rings out?

When Sinatra sings of “the church, the school, the clubhouse” did you think of a peaceful Sunday service, of children seated in their school eager to learn? Or did your mind go to the images from Sandy Hook where children were killed, or a Charleston church where people gathering to worship were killed by racism and gunfire? When he sings about a clubhouse did you think of an Orlando nightclub or an office holiday party in San Bernardino?

Probably not because those are not what we aspire to see in what we are as a nation. We must refuse to allow hate-filled spasms inflicting death to define us.

Toward the end of the song Sinatra sings “But especially the people, that’s America to me.”

Yes the people, a land of people who are welcoming, who believe in freedoms and rights hard-won across the centuries by leaders and ordinary people. People risked their lives crossing oceans or on battlefields or in protests when they faced firehoses or police dogs or beatings for as Sinatra said “the right to speak their mind out.”

This is no time for that vision of our American House to be altered. This is no time to give in. This is no time to allow others to conjure our darkest fears and assumptions about other people and manifest themselves in our minds and hearts, or worse yet in our actions.

For in embracing our darkest impulses we then become like those we despise. Do we not take on the mantel of discrimination, oppression, hate and discord that our founders sought to cast off?  

In the State of Virginia’s statutes of religious freedom written by Thomas Jefferson and passed in 1786 he wrote: all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

That statute separating Church and State and promoting religious tolerance endures. But Jefferson also envisioned a time when the politics could change so in the statute he wrote:

“The rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right.”

Jefferson defined that freedom as a natural right. One wonders if he’d view limitations on people of certain religions as an attempt to narrow that natural right?

On the 4th we’ll celebrate our freedoms and our open society. But it’s also a time to recognize that many of our families are descended from people who came here or were brought here.

We should recall there was a time when our ancestors bore the pain of being seen as outsiders. Should we further the strains of intolerance suffered by our grandparents or parents?

Sinatra’s song should remind us that this country is the House we live in. We’ve built a great nation, a nation that is indivisible and a nation that despite campaign rhetoric is a leader and an example to the world in so many ways.

No amount of sloganeering to sow seeds of discord can take away our history or take away our ability to adapt and innovate over and over again. Negative messaging must not be allowed to force cracks in foundations of inclusiveness and unity that are the rock upon which our American House has stood for 240 years.

Be thankful that you live in this nation; a house that has room for all but also a house that we can improve. Our house was built by people who founded this country “in order to form a more perfect union.”

We are not there yet. But we must not let any weariness we feel be our excuse to slide backwards on the rights of humanity, on the American values that were written into the founding documents or even sung by Frank Sinatra in the last century.

"The House I Live In"


Performed by Frank Sinatra

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

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


The place I work in

The worker by my side

The little town the city

Where my people lived and died


The howdy and the handshake

The air a feeling free

And the right to speak your mind out

That's America to me


The things I see about me

The big things and the small

The little corner newsstand

Or the house a mile tall


The wedding and the churchyard

The laughter and the tears

The dream that's been a growing

For a hundred and fifty years


The town I live in

The street, the house, the room

The pavement of the city

Or the garden all in bloom


The church the school the clubhouse

The million lights I see

But especially the people

That's America to me



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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