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Pastor Dennis Perry and Rick Santorum

Before Rick Santorum was introduced at a revivalist-type church service in Baton Rouge last week, Baptist pastor Dennis Terry revived the timeworn trope, "America: Love It or Leave It." He said that those who don't believe that America "was founded as a Christian nation" ought to "get out!" In case it wasn't clear precisely who should be sent packing, he added, "We don't worship Buddha, we don't worship Mohammad, we don't worship Allah!"

Santorum joined in a standing ovation for the pastor. The next day, the former Pennsylvania senator kinda sorta distanced himself from Terry's most bigoted remarks. He didn't clap during that part of the speech, he said. And besides, he added, "I wasn't quite listening to everything to be honest with you (ital mine)." Santorum could use some sodium pentothal and a hearing aid: he went deaf when a gay soldier was booed during a Republican debate last September. He even has trouble hearing himself, claiming he said "blah people," not "black people," to an interviewer in January.

Commentators who insist that America in 2012 is more polarized than ever must have been either unborn or comatose during the 1960s-early '70s. The country was viciously and sometimes violently divided over the war in Vietnam and other issues, and "America Love It or Leave It" was a common bumper sticker. The police riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Mayor Richard J. Daley's police force brutally beat protesters in full view of TV cameras, made today's Occupy and Tea Party protests seem like a warm bath.

As if to put a coda on the '60s, deadly violence erupted from both sides during the first half of 1970. On March 6, three members of the radical leftist Weathermen killed themselves and injured two others when a bomb they were making in a Greenwich Village townhouse accidentally exploded. Two months later, the Ohio National Guard killed four and injured eight unarmed Kent State studentsshortly after a peaceful rally. Four days after Kent State, a "Hard Hat Riot" in Manhattan featured hundreds of construction workers confronting a student rally carrying "America: Love It or Leave It" signs.

Musically, the '70s began with superstar Merle Haggard topping the country charts with "The Fightin' Side of Me," which included the line, "America, if you don't love it, leave it." For his part, country pioneer Ernest Tubb weighed in with the straightforward "It's America (Love It or Leave It)." I loved these artists and didn't want to leave them, but here they were insulting me and my friends and family. (In one sense, at least, things are worse than ever now: Tubb and Haggard were Hall of Fame legends; today's "Love It or Leave It" jingoists, like Toby Keith and Ted Nugent, couldn't shine their boots.)

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Like another '50s/'60s slogan, the anti-Communist "Better dead than red," there are obviously more than two choices. One guy who lived across the hall from me freshman year meant it when he said, "Show me a commie and I'll kill him." He eventually found a middle ground, aided by the mind-expanding powers of marijuana and acid.

During the '60s, warmongers wanted to kick us out. Today, some on the right are suggesting they might pick up their marbles and leave, though they wouldn't actually have to "go" anywhere. Texas Governor Rick Perry has mused about secession. So has Mr. Sarah Palin, who, it emerged after his wife was tapped to run with John McCain in 2008, had belonged to the Alaskan Independence Party.

In the Wall Street Journal, one-percenter Glen Esnard warned President Obama about the consequences of assuming that "living in America is so wonderful that we will never leave... He should think again." Never mind that having one's federal tax rate rise slightly might not warrant self-imposed exile in, say, Russia, where the rate is a paltry 13 percent. But wait! That's what Mitt Romney pays.

The origin of "America Love It or Leave It" is murky. It was popularized by gossip guru and Joseph McCarthy sympathizer Walter Winchell, who, among other abuses of power, helped keep entertainer/activist/national treasure Josephine Baker out of the country we're all free to love.

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Michael Sigman

Republished from Huffington Post with the author's permission.