America the Beautiful

A plaintive post on Facebook this week complained of being asked to sing “America the Beautiful” on Sunday morning.  I can think of no sadder legacy of the Bush-Cheney years than Americans embarrassed to sing “America the Beautiful” in church.”

At least the individual was not asked to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”  But worse things than that could happen. Imagine being English and having to sing, “God save our gracious queen” or being Canadian and singing about “The true north strong and free.”  Worse yet, suppose you were Japanese and had to sing Kimi gayo:

May the Emperor’s rule last
Till a thousand years, then eight thousand years to come
Till sand, pebbles, and rocks
To be united as a ledge
Till moss grows on it

I would never ask a congregation to sing the “Star spangled banner” in church and I think “My country ‘tis of thee”  is a silly piece of nineteenth century sentimentalism, but “America the beautiful” is what every national song ought to be: a hymn of thankfulness for gifts given and a prayer to make them better.

I grew up in rock-ribbed Republican country in upState New York where farmers groused about “that  man” in the  White House and wanted unionized workers shot. My parents weren’t terribly political but we were encouraged to think for ourselves.  When I was not yet nine, my parents voted for Wendell Wilkie but I had a mind of my own and was for Roosevelt.  Kids in the neighborhood threatened to beat me up one afternoon because they had heard I was a Democrat but I held my ground and got away with it.  It was a time of idealism. This country stood in stark contrast to the Axis powers and Russia.  It wasn’t perfect.  Union workers sometimes got shot and lynchings still took place in the south.  The Ku Klux Klan even held rallies in Allegany County.  But free elections were held every two years and change was possible.  It still is.

Do Americans get very angry with each other now? Yes, but I remember the 1930s and the 1950s.  I am unwilling to let Tea Party types define Americanism.  I don’t think they really understand what this country is all about.  And I am not willing to let them get away with their distorted picture of it.

If some people think the pope on the one hand or a ranting evangelical on the other defines Christianity, should I stop being a Christian?  If a majority in the Anglican Communion considers homosexuality a sin, should I stop being an Anglican?

I am writing a biography of James W. C. Pennington, a fugitive slave who became a leader in the abolition movement before the Civil War.  He was brought up in slavery and, although he escaped and became one of the best educated men of his day, he couldn’t use public transportation in New York City because of his color.  The presidents of Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale among others formed a society to colonize black people back to Africa and Pennington joined with others to fight against them.  “I am an American to he backbone,” he proclaimed.  He believed in this country not because of what it was but because of what it could be. So do I.

I am reminded of the Beatles’ song:

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad,
Take a sad song and make it better . . .

But “America the beautiful is not a sad song.  It recognizes the need for a vision and the reality of where we are. “God mend thine every flaw.”  Yes, and sing it in church where that prayer is appropriately offered.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

I don’t expect to live long enough to see such cities but I need to hold onto the dream and keep singing about it or we will never get there.  Don’t let the fearful and visionless take that way from us!

amber waves of grain

1 Comment

Gail DavisJuly 7th, 2010 at 3:35 pm

We sang it as well, and, for the first time, carried the flag in procession. I am not a “love it or leave it” “patriot” but I pray for what our country can be-the vision. Just like my vision of what the church can be.

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