On a Fourth of July several summers ago, I found myself on a long car ride with several fellow graduate students of theology, one of whom was from South Africa. Or maybe it was Canada. New Zealand? Or Old Australia. Anyway, I am certain she wasn’t an American. At her urging and in the spirit of the day, we sang every patriotic song we could remember. Among the four Americans we knew quite a few, with the Midwesterners doing the best. This surprised me because I always more or less figured them, too, for Canadians.
“You Americans,” said our foreign friend (many of her sentences started this way), “surely do love your pilgrims. And God is always on your side, isn’t she?”
One can see how our constant musical references to Plymouth Rock can be baffling, since the continent had its own Native American civilizations long before the arrival of the pilgrims. And the arrival of other Europeans predated them by more than a century. Nor, history tells us, were the pilgrims themselves particularly enamored of the religious liberty or democratic principles for which they are praised in song.
My friend’s second observation, however, points out not just our selective historical memory, but our truly disturbing conflation of patriotism and religion. America in many of our patriotic standards sounds a great deal like God’s chosen people, and God sounds quite a bit like a national deity whose divine plan is synonymous with U.S. global hegemony (and whose wrath is available for use against our enemies). St. Paul might have told the Galatians that in Christ we are neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free, but I’m not sure his letter made it to our shores. What’s even more disturbing is that many of us learned these songs not in school or from the media, but from their use in church around all our national holidays.
If you hear “My Country ’Tis of Thee” this coming Fourth of July weekend, listen closely to the verses. Originally intended as a response to England’s unconscionable “God Save The King,” the lyrics include “Protect us by Thy might/ Great God our King,” and “Beneath Heaven’s gracious will/ the stars of progress still/ our course do sway/ in unity sublime./ To broader heights we climb/ Triumphant over time, God speeds our way!” The lyrics to “America the Beautiful” are even less subtle, as the song proclaims, “O beautiful for patriot dream/ that sees beyond the years/ Thine alabaster cities gleam/ Undimmed by human tears!/ America! America! God shed His grace on thee.” Hi there, Pelagius! One might question the theology behind asking God to create in the United States the new Jerusalem depicted in the Book of Revelation, until one realizes that these lyrics are not even directed to God, but to the nation itself.
God and nation are conflated most spectacularly in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in which we sing: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea/ with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:/ As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free/ While God is marching on.” To be fair, it’s a soldier’s song, with its original purpose obviously to stir up the patriotism, confidence and courage of Civil War soldiers. But parse that notion of the imitation of Christ. You are Christlike if you die in battle against your enemies? That’s not patriotism; that’s American holy war, or what our media in other contexts call jihad.
I’m not suggesting we purge our hymnals of our favorite songs, or even that theology and patriotism don’t mix; a sense of national pride and gratitude for God’s gifts to the nation are in many ways part and parcel of Christian practice and theology. But that doesn’t mean we should teach each generation that God is an American, or, worse, that America is godlike.
I’d like to offer an alternative, the up-with-the-downtrodden verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” recorded by Woody Guthrie in 1944 as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the Kate Smith version of which was forever on the radio during World War II. Even the great Guthrie, however, was not immune to our temptations toward manifest destiny. What might my foreign friend—of uncertain provenance, after all—make of our notion that “this land was made for you and me”?