God Bless America?

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Patriotism is a form of piety. This makes tricky terrain for religious types. When the state’s highest holy day falls on a day typically belonging to the Lord, as it does this year, the footing becomes particularly uncertain. How do we allow pious expression to admit some patriotism on such an occasion?

Whether or not the United States is a Christian nation remains debatable. Pious Puritans butt up against the bland deistic fronts of the Founding Fathers, and Christians still struggle to live as faithful citizens of both the secular state and the heavenly City. Those who would like a more sanctified celebration of patriotism have gravitated to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Debuted by Kate Smith in 1938, this brief collection of rhymes succeeds in bringing a bit of devotion to one’s patriotic duty. The impulse is laudable, so far as it goes. It is analogous to a mealtime prayer, acknowledging that the founder of the feast is neither the person who paid for it, nor the person who prepared it. For religious adherents, fealty with reference to a nation is ultimately owed to the power beyond that nation whose will (whether permissive or active) allows the nation to exist.

But “God Bless America” is religiously weak sauce. That is to say, it’s fine for the water-ski show on the Fourth at your local lake. Where the Papists and Bible-thumpers are making a happy day of it alongside fellow Americans of other faiths or, more likely, no well-defined faith, “God Bless America” is precisely what is needed. Berlin’s song, however, is no Sunday morning hymn. Who, in “God Bless America,” is God? It is open for anyone to define, which is the opposite of the Christian confession. The theological laxity that makes “God Bless America” fit a syncretistic gathering is what prevents it from having a place in a Christian religious service.

Where else might we go for a hymn on Sunday, the Fourth of July? There is no shortage of options. “America the Beautiful” offers a petition in each stanza for divine blessing. In its humblest verses, the song asks of America,

God mend thine every flaw

Confirm thy soul in self-control

Thy liberty in law.

God Bless Our Native Land” offers not only praise and thanks to God for the gift of nation, but asks for his ongoing protection of the state itself. “God Of Our Fathers” demonstrates that even a son of the Church of England can write a stirring hymn that contends for a place on the hymnboard on the Fourth of July. But all of these are vague or oblique on exactly who God is. A Christian hymn should be primarily Christian: a prayer to and confession of Jesus Christ. God is. For this reason, we must also probably eliminate “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” both of which come with subtexts that mitigate their strengths.

To find a hymn for the Fourth, we can turn to a songwriter we already know well. Francis Scott Key has more credits to his name than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Of all patriotic hymns, perhaps none offers a more clear and beautiful Christian confession than Key’s “Before The Lord We Bow.” Setting the first stanza in heaven, building next through the establishment of a political state, and then broadening the view to include all of creation, Key brings singers to the height of their prayer in stanza four:

Earth! hear thy maker’s voice,
The great Redeemer own,
Believe, obey, rejoice,
And worship Him alone;
Cast down thy pride,
Thy sin deplore,
And bow before
The Crucified.

Deploring our sin is not something Americans typically do on the Fourth. That’s a day when we like to deplore the sins of others, in that unfashionable persons and acts of history are now reckoned sinful: George the Third, guys in wigs, taxation without representation, The Man. But this enjoyable task is historical and political rather than Christian. The foremost posture of the Christian is humility; acknowledging one’s own sins rather than rubbing the specks in someone else’s eye.

The insight of Key’s hymn is that although it is patriotic, it is not about America. It may be sung of any nation. “The nation Thou hast blest/May well thy love declare,” Key writes in stanza two. That nation may be a republic or a monarchy. It may give everyone the vote, or no one. It will certainly be an oligarchy. The state, in Christian theology, is a means by which the Lord both chastens and blesses for the purpose of drawing people to himself. A Christian’s state may be a cross to bear or a horn of plenty, but either way, it is a gift. Christians offer thanks for it from their vocation, whether citizen or denizen, on Independence Day–whatever date that happens to be for the political boundary within which one has landed on this planet.

Key concludes:

And when in power He comes,
O may our native land,
From all its rending tombs,
Send forth a glorious band;
A countless throng
Ever to sing
To heaven’s high King
Salvation’s song.

This is globalism in its good sense. It is perverse to artificially strong arm all humanity into a single order under the U.N., Amazon, or the righteous causes of a moment in history. But it is a central Christian doctrine that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whether or not we live in a place where we are free to sing it, the message of the Gospel is for every tribe and nation. The freedom God has modeled most resoundingly for us is not expression, assembly, religion, or baseball and apple pie. It is the freedom to forgive: that is, to help others to freedom from the agony of sin. God in Christ shows not how to demand our rights, but how to forgive those who have wronged us; not how to punish the guilty, but how to love, redeem, and restore them.

Forgiveness, however, presupposes sin. It is built on the premise that there is guilt, and that guilt deserves punishment. Forgiveness can only be a global solution if every individual on this globe is a sinner. Forgiveness, in Christian theology, is only received by the repentant, those who recognize their sins as sins and turn from them in humility. In other words, forgiveness is antithetical to pride. Key’s stanza four (“Cast down thy pride/Thy sin deplore”) cannot and, moreover, will not be sung by anyone who rejects forgiveness on God’s terms. This will probably include several people at the water-ski show.

But those of us who would miss the water-ski show for church do so because of what the Fourth of July means for us. It would be unpatriotic for Christians not to offer special petitions for the nation when Independence Day coincides with the Lord’s Day. To wit: God bless America, please. God save the state, we pray. God mend America’s every flaw, amen and amen. On the Lord’s day and in his house, let it not be America’s song, but salvation’s song that is sung. A gracious answer to that prayer is the blessing our nation and every nation seeks.

Rebekah Curtis is the co-author of LadyLike (Concordia: 2015). She has written for publications such as Public Discourse, First Things, University Bookman, Front Porch Republic, Chronicles, Touchstone, and Salvo.

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