In one of the churches I attended as a young child, we held patriotic services at least once a year. It was the eighties, and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” was a huge hit. I’ll never forget the way one of our church members performed that song as his “special music” contribution to our patriotic Sunday. In that single performance, I heard more passion and fervor than I had ever experienced in my otherwise withheld, conservative church. When he got to the emotional line, “I’ll proudly stand up” — dramatic pause — “next to you and defend her still today,” congregants leapt to their feet in excitement.
Later, when I heard the song as an adult, I was confused by one line: “I won’t forget the men who died and gave that right to me.” You see, I had always heard the line as “I won’t forget the man who died.” I don’t know if it was my 6-year-old brain’s limited understanding, my inability to decipher a very Texan accent, or if the gentleman performing the song really changed the lyrics to “man,” but for the longest time, I thought that “man” was Jesus, and I believed the song credited Jesus’s death with American freedom.
Whether or not that singer actually changed the lyrics, it’s not hard to see how I might have been confused. I had been taught that Jesus died to set me free. Just what that freedom entailed remained pretty vague. And the idea that American freedom might be tied up with Christian freedom was supported by a network of similar associations in other patriotic hymns. Take the most widely anthologized patriotic hymn of all time, “America” (or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”), by Samuel F. Smith. After firmly establishing in verses one and two that the song is addressed to America, verse three issues this exhortation for freedom to continue to ring from America’s land:
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.
“Let all that breathe partake” bears more than a passing resemblance to Psalmist’s cry, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150), and that apostrophe asking rocks to break their silence recalls Jesus’s words that “if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:40). Here, however, the stones are not praising God, but “My Country.” It’s not until verse four where the song explicitly turns its praise to “Our fathers’ God, to Thee, Author of liberty.” With that context, can you blame me for being confused about the difference between Christian and American notions of freedom?
That’s not the only Christian doctrine to get a little mixed up with American patriotism. “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” aka “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” explicitly celebrates Christ’s return and the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet the song is so utterly entwined with its role in the Civil War, that all these positive statements about Christ’s truth, glory, judgment, and freedom become unavoidably conflated with statements about American truth, glory, judgment, and freedom.
But conflating the Kingdom of Heaven with earthly kingdoms is nothing new. “America the Beautiful” uses images of the New Jerusalem straight out of Revelation to describe the future of America: “Oh beautiful for patriot dream that sees, beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!” Alas, America has never been nor ever will be the place where “God will wipe every tear from their eye.” In as much as America is included in the New Earth, then I suppose we may envision a tearless future on American soil, but this is a Christian dream, not a “patriot dream.”
And then there’s our national anthem. I realize that most people don’t know verse two, but I was a strange child who delighted in memorization. In the back of a tiny Gideon’s bible that I had adopted as my own were printed the first and last verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I learned them both by heart. Here is what I learned:
Oh thus be it ever when free men shall stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation; Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just; And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’
Neither my little Gideon Bible nor my Baptist Hymnal included the middle verse, so I didn’t really know what the “thus” of the phrase “O thus be it ever” refers to. But some hymnals do include that missing second verse, which provides the answer to the rhetorical question posed in verse one: does the star-spangled banner yet wave? Yes, it does, as glimpsed “On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep, Where the foe’s haughty host in dead silence reposes…”
Did you catch that? The enemy is dead, the flag still stands, and verse three exclaims that this triumphant and deadly image is how it should “thus be…ever” in the event that free men must fight for liberty with God on their side. In our national anthem, God gets the credit for America’s bloody victory and hard-won peace. So I, like Bob Dylan, heard the message that “the land that I live in has God on its side.”
Of course, not all associations between American ideals and Christian ones are problematic. Martin Luther King purposely exploited the connection between American and Christian freedom in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where he fuses the calls for freedom to ring from every mountainside of America with Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah (“Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low.”)
But King appears to use the Christian vision of freedom as the standard for America’s vision, not the other way around. King’s vision is dependent upon an eschatology that sees some human progress toward the sweet by and by in the bitter now. When King looks forward to “that day when all God’s children… will be able to join hands and sing… ‘free at last…'” he imagines both a socio-political possibility and a future, redemptive hope. America is not the promised land of the new Kingdom, but by God’s power, America may fall into line under Christ’s kingdom rule with positive steps toward justice and equality.
At their best, the patriotic hymns call America to a vision like King’s, in which individuals, states, and eventually, our whole nation is a beacon for God’s Kingdom, a “city on a hill” where we daily pray that Christ’s “kingdom come” and his “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At their worst, these hymns offer a confusing theology where Jesus died for individual autonomy, America is the site of the New Jerusalem, and God takes America’s side in war.
But perhaps none of this matters that much. After all, I was raised with these conflicting messages, yet I managed to grow up and get it straight as an adult who understands the metaphorical meanings of these patriotic texts. Larger trends, however, point to more widespread confusion. A 2016 poll among protestant pastors showed that around 53% of them believed that their congregations loved America more than God. The same year’s evangelical support of Donald Trump in the face of his well-documented moral failings seems to confirm that pastoral hunch.
I recently witnessed my own congregation’s outsized display of national adoration when, in a Memorial Day service, they spontaneously rose and lifted their hands in worship during the group singing of “America the Beautiful.” In the previous year, I could count on one hand the number of times they had risen in spontaneous worship, yet here they were, eyes closed, faces ecstatic, belting out a cry for God to “crown [America’s] good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”
I suppose there’s no harm in praying for God’s blessings, but as long as we’re looking more closely at these patriotic hymns, let’s focus for a moment on words from the lesser-known second verse of “America the Beautiful:”
America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
If America is to be a city on a hill, she must first be refined. As Beyonce sang in her 2011 version of “God Bless The USA,” “There’s pride in every American heart, And it’s time to make a change…”
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.