It's OK to Sing 'America, The Beautiful' In Church

Letting God reign over both your heavenly home and your earthly country.

A few years ago, I walked out of church on Fourth of July Sunday. Actually, I didn't even make it into the sanctuary. Walking in from outside, I heard the congregation singing "America the Beautiful," and I turned around before even making it to the doors.

"Who is your God?" I thought, turning my back to the church. "Is it the God of heaven, or is it your country?"

Always on the lookout for nationalism dressed up like religion, I had long been wary of patriotic fervor in church; I thought it looked suspiciously like worship. So whenever I heard the pledge of allegiance recited in church, I kept silent, hands to my sides. And whenever I heard "America, America," sung in church, I assumed the congregation was ascribing the same dedication and honor it would to "Jesus, Jesus." Every year, my refusal to sing along was my silent protest.

This year, when the congregation starts to sing "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America" ... I'm going to sing along.


But this year is going to be different. This year, when the congregation starts to sing "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America," I'm not going to walk out of church. I'm going to sing along.

My change of heart came when I actually looked up some of the words to “America the Beautiful,” originally written by Katherine Lee Bates in the late 19th century. Here is a stanza from the original:

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

Here is another stanza from a popular variation of the original:

America! America! 

God mend thine every flaw, 

Confirm thy soul in self-control, 

Thy liberty in law!

To my surprise, I found that “America the Beautiful” doesn’t seek to place the U.S. as its object of worship, but does something that other hymns don’t: celebrate that God is active on earth in the present, not sitting passively in heaven. Like the biblical authors who affirmed that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25), this song honors God as not just the God of the heavens, nor just the earth in general, but of specific nations and peoples.

This is in contrast to many other popular church songs. Take this popular 20th century hymn:

This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door.
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” refuse to limit God and His purposes to the heavens alone. They certainly celebrate the merits of their nation—and I can see how that could be off-putting for many—yet they also express a passion for their nation that goes beyond a vague sense of thankfulness. They insist that the God of the heavens is also the God of every nation, including America, and that He is active in ruling the nations. They not only thank Him for their country’s beauty, but also plead with Him for the country's restoration (“God mend thine every flaw”), echoing the cries of Daniel, David and the psalmists, who looked forward to the day God's kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

This kingdom, Jesus said, is like a mustard seed—literally rooted to the earth and its kingdoms, not hidden in a disembodied heavenly realm (Matthew 13:31-32.) From His agriculture-themed kingdom parables to His death as "King of the Jews" and, ultimately, to His bodily resurrection as a living, breathing human, Jesus' kingdom vision points us upward, but keeps us tethered to the earth.

The God of the heavens is also the God of every nation, including America, and ... He is active in ruling the nations


No, America does not have the same covenant significance as Israel, but God-centered patriotism doesn’t nullify or supersede God’s promises to that historically important nation. Rather, it is by linking ourselves to the earthly nations we were born into, and over which Jesus is Lord, that we can actually offer ourselves in service to Israel’s original mission given by God, one of spiritual and social transformation in every nation (Acts 1:6-8.)

It turns out that it is possible to take part in patriotic Fourth of July festivities without setting up our country as an idol. In fact, the hope for God's Kingdom will actually lead to, not away from, patriotic expressions. By singing lines like, "America! America! God shed his grace on thee," we are asking God to do what He is already set on doing—bring justice and righteousness to every nation, as any good king would do.

I'm aware there are still many Americans who mistakenly worship their nationality instead of their God. They sing of America as a perfect nation and ignore its many flaws. Perhaps they even see Fourth of July weekend as a chance to express their devotion to what they really worship. Yet this could be precisely because they don't have a Kingdom-centered patriotism. Not knowing exactly how God relates to their nation, they are tempted to worship the nation itself. So by critically embracing, and not drawing away from the pomp of this year's Fourth of July, perhaps we can be a part of redefining patriotism in the church. We may even give those outside the church a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American and a Christian.

7 Comments

Red

10

Red commented…

Good article. I do like the contrast between "America the Beautiful" and other popular hymns. I do disagree with the conclusion, but it was well-written and makes some excellent points. Thanks KC!

KC McGinnis

14

KC McGinnis replied to Red's comment

Hey, thanks, Red! Appreciate your kind words. If you want, you can share your thoughts over at my blog (linked top right of this article). I'd love to hear your opinion.

Andy Duffey

2

Andy Duffey commented…

Still not convinced of the merits of patriotism in church. I believe scripture encourages us to see ourselves first as citizens of the Kingdom of God, which honors no borders or human nationalities. I can't imagine the early church singing about Rome with much patriotic enthusiasm. And despite the obvious different contexts, America is the current great empire all the same.

Mike Blevins

1

Mike Blevins commented…

Does this mean you've decided to say the Pledge of Allegiance also? It does say, "one nation, under God," right?

KC McGinnis

14

KC McGinnis commented…

I'm still a bit apprehensive about the pledge of allegiance. I think some other American Christians were as well, which is perhaps why "under God" was officially added to the Pledge in 1954. It is interesting to note that the flag code that requires people to remove their hats when giving the Pledge does not apply to religious head coverings: turbans, hijabs, etc. Perhaps the Pledge is meant to be understood as secondary to religious commitment.

mynameismarcy

2

mynameismarcy commented…

Meheheheheh, no. You make a convincing case that these songs aren't quite as awful as I tend to view them, but you really don't make much of one for singing them in church.

Christ, in Matthew and throughout the gospels, was pretty much never speaking of the kingdoms of the earth. Not even in a general sense. He was speaking of the Kingdom (capital letter here) of God. Which is indeed rooted in the Earth and in the world in as much as it is rooted in us. But to in any way equate what Christ preached in terms the Kingdom of God with the present day kingdoms of earth, is erroneous.

And even to the extent that these songs contain a few snippets that focus on God acting through our nation-which would be marvelous-you should be given pause because of what this is likely confirming in parishioners minds. There is no threat today of a lack of patriotism in mainline evangelical denominations-and I think admittedly every chance of too much of it. The very usage of God in these songs is more likely to confirm American exceptionalism than to refute it in anyone's mind. Because the need for change is not emphasized. The flaws of America are not preached, but only her merits. The song is not sung as a prayer that God mend our flaws, it is merely sung as an aggrandizement of America.

As a final point, even if we concede everything you have said, and pretend for a moment that every one was on the same page as you when they sung that song. That they were really aware of the contrast between the ideals in it and the reality. Yet even if this were so it would still be inappropriate because church, and Sunday worship in particular, is about God. Often enough, a fellow is only seen on church in Sunday. Let it then be a Sunday that is entirely about God, where God is 100% the focus. Our songs in particular should reflect this because we call our songs worship.

I do not think that God is against patriotism, in fact I think it is an excellent thing. With Chesterton I would say: A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity. The man who loves his country may not happen to pay extravagant verbal compliments to humanity, but he is paying to it the greatest of compliments - imitation. But the fact is that patriotism, in spite of it's goodness does not belong in the church. As the church, we transcend the temporary state. We do not owe our allegiance to it, and we should not do anything that might confuse the two.

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