Of Thee I Might or Might Not Sing

Last Sunday “in church,” believers might have sung this, or you might hear it on the radio today:

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountainside,
Let freedom ring!
Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees,
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.
Our fathers’ God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King.

Personally, I think it can be just fine to sing about, or even to, one’s country—not mixing, or placing it anywhere near, the worship of God, of course.  I enjoy a great deal of freedom and should probably be more expressive about it.  I do worry that expressions such as “Let freedom ring!” might be a euphemism for supporting the exporting of our particular form of government.  Believe it or not, not everyone in the world feels that a democratic republic is inherently best, or even good, and in any event there are other aspects of society in the U.S. that are not enviable or exportable.  It is a mistake to feel that the U.S.A. should coerce other nations to accept our ways, no matter their perceived merit.

The 2nd and 3rd stanzas above seem pure-hearted enough, but my eye and heart begin to see other possibilities:

“noble free” smacks of military action and results (i.e., death)

the liberty that God provides seems to be equated with the political kind

the “ringing from the trees” of freedom’s song takes on an air of “manifest destiny” articulated by the likes of President Woodrow Wilson—which in effect circles back to the concerns of above paragraph.

I have long thought that the “Star Spangled Banner” was a poor choice for our national anthem.  “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” would have been a better one, but it has a musical problem, namely, that the music associated with it is also the music for the British anthem “God Save the Queen”!

So I come to “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” (“America, the Beautiful”).  I have wished this were our national anthem.  Its recognizable, beautiful music is a little more difficult to sing than “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” but not nearly as difficult as the “Banner.”  But wait—I’d have to sing only the first stanza of “O Beautiful.”  The words are still a problem.  In the other stanzas, I see again a glorification of militarism and more than a hint of the objectionable “God Bless America” mentality that assumes the Lord of Hosts is concerned with blessing capitalism and gold reserves and the codification and exertion of a human system of government.  Christians had better stick with sentiments like “my home, sweet home,” and gratitude for the day’s bread, without making God out to be a Commander-in-Chief of battle forces or Blesser of political entities.

There’s so much more that could be said about songs and music when thinking of patriotism and Christianity and the point at which they (shouldn’t) come together—what I know of “Dixie” isn’t so bad, but “John Brown’s body a-molderin’ in the grave” is, and Lee Greenwood’s famous song has a line or two that this particular Christian would never sing.  At this very moment, I am listening to a radio station run by a Christian institution, and I am hearing military anthems.  This deeply disturbs me.  We need to be more discerning, more deeply thoughtful.  Secular nationalists don’t bother me much, but any immature manifestation of patriotism can be blind and self-centered.  Fireworks are impressive and fun (and I hope you enjoy those you might see tonight).  The problem I seek to identify here is the mixture of nationalistic or militaristic ideals with Christianity:

  • mixing the American flag with worship or communion in church gatherings, as in many church halls
  • mixing songs that point to God’s historical acts with nationalism, as in PowerPoint slides and in Christian school programs
  • mixing Jesus’ worship with country’s war efforts, as in the horrific song “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
  • mixing national holidays with Christian celebrations and gatherings, as in a church down the street from us

Product Details

I recently came across the ill-begotten book pictured here.  Poorly defining its terms (for instance, by my count, only 1-3 of the 25 musical compositions are hymns, and less than half are hymns by anyone’s definition), the book’s contents constitute a hopelessly befuddled mix of Christian faith & patriotism, prayer and military hero worship, nationalism and Christian mission.  It is hard to believe that a company as reputable as Zondervan published this book 13 years ago, but financial interests do get in the way of truth and clear thinking about God’s interests.

Let me put this another way:

It’s not so terrible to mix battle songs, hymns, and songs of faith . . .

It’s not so ill-begotten to have a “patriotic service” at a Christian church . . .

It’s not so awful to conceive of a “Christian America” . . .

. . . if your interest is in a human system (and forcing that system on nonbelievers) and not in the King of Kings, that is.

B. Casey, 7/4/16


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