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

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

Last year, 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." 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 have long been wary of patriotic fervor in church; I think it looks suspiciously like worship. So whenever I hear the pledge of allegiance recited in church, I keep silent, hands to my sides. And whenever I hear "America, America," sung in church, I assume the congregation is ascribing the same dedication and honor it would to "Jesus, Jesus." Every year, my refusal to sing along is my silent protest.

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. Here's why.

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.

Looking through the Bible, and especially the Psalms, I recently noticed its unique sense of patriotism. Moved with love for their homeland, the psalmists celebrated Jerusalem's beauty (Psalm 50:2), lamented her hardships (Psalm 79:1-3), prayed for her safety (Psalm 122), and even boasted of her military prowess (Psalm 48). One psalmist wrote, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!" (Psalm 137:5.) The psalmists loved their country and thanked God for giving it to them. But there is something different about their patriotism, something that goes beyond typical American patriotism.

When discussing Fourth of July nationalism with my friends, the most common counter to my skepticism is, "It's important to be thankful for your country." True. But I'm also thankful for other material things God has given me, like fireworks and fried chicken, but I don't go singing hymns about them. The psalmists (and some hymn-writers, as we'll find) had a passion for their nation that went beyond a vague sense of thankfulness. Combining their patriotism with their dedication to Yahweh, the psalmists insisted that the God of the heavens was also the God of Israel, and that he was active in ruling their nation. The way the psalmists pleaded with God for the country's restoration and urged his presence in the city walls demonstrates a belief that God didn't passively rule over Israel from the heavens, but was extending his heavenly rule to earth. Before Jesus even uttered it, they were praying for God's kingdom to come "on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:9-13.)

The psalms demonstrate an understanding held by God's people throughout the Scriptures - that God is active on earth in the present, not sitting passively in heaven. The monastic worldview, which posits separation from the material world as bringing one closer to God, couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, through their firm dedication to their earthly abodes, the biblical authors actually honored God by affirming that "the Most High rules in the kingdom of men" (Daniel 4:25.)

Of course, this kingdom-centered patriotism comes to its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The kingdom of God, he 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.
Yes, America is not the same as Israel, God’s chosen covenant people. I am not suggesting we go through the Bible replacing “Israel” with “America” or whatever other nation. But kingdom-centered patriotism doesn’t nullify or supersede God’s promises to Israel. Quite the opposite. 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.

But this earthly kingdom mindset has been more or less forgotten in America. Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, illustrated the problem this way in a paper written to help Asian Christians learn from the West's mistakes. He pointed out the difference between Katharine Lee Bates' "America the Beautiful" (1895) and Albert E. Brumley's "This World Is Not My Home" (1937):

"In the 19th century we were singing about the glorification of God as His will is fulfilled 'on earth.' Here is the final stanza and chorus of 'America the Beautiful':

'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,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.'

"In the 20th century we have been singing mainly about heaven:

'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.' "

When I read the lyrics of "America the Beautiful," "God Bless America," and other nationalistic hymns, I see the same kingdom-centered patriotism I found in the Psalms. Many of these hymns (but not all—"Hail, Columbia" is especially disturbing) are beautiful expressions of God's people calling out to their God, who is active not only in the heavens but in the world he created. 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 mend thine every flaw," we are asking God to do what he is already set on doing—bringing justice and righteousness to every nation, as any good king would do.

I'm aware that 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. John the Baptist's rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 3:7-10 suggests that some Jews in his day made the same mistake. But perhaps this is precisely because some people 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. And we may give those outside the church a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American and a Christian.

Who is our God? He's the God of heaven. And our country.

26 Comments

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Rhys Marshall commented…

"The author refuses to differentiate between nationalism and respect of land.": He more than adequately does so in the last two paragraphs, in my opinion.

I am going to disagree with more of your thoughts, though. As exiles and ambassadors in this world, we are called to pray for the welfare of the countries where God has placed us (Jer. 29:7) and for the human authorities who lead us (1 Tim 2:1-2). Most of these songs (especially America the Beautiful) are prayers asking God to do just that. Thus they seem to me to be completely appropriate in a church setting, if only once a year.

Asfor your clincher concerning idolatry: "It is a grave mistake to look for middle ground". I want to spread your theory over a wider area and see if it sticks. Our culture worships sex in all forms as penultimate only behind the pleasure it provides. Should I abstain from my wife in order to avoid the "middle ground" of enjoying it too? Our Christian culture worships good worship music and skilled preachers (this idolatry is especially rampant in churches these days, more so than patriotism in my opinion). Should we cut them out entirely until the "nonsense" goes away? Christian parents frequently idolize their kids (it's a struggle for every parent in my faith family). Is the cure to discourage couples from having children? Personally, I struggle sometimes with getting more excited about biblical doctrine than I do about my personal relationship with the Creator, and I know I'm not at all alone in this (getting more fired up about TULIP than Jesus). Does good doctrine need to go as well?How about we redeem these good gifts (yes, our love for country too) by allowing our enjoyment of them to roll up into praise for our Heavenly Father instead of rejecting them completely? Hence the authors call to redefine patriotism by joining in and celebrating God's sovereignty over our land and His gifting of it to us for the time being while we teach, reproof, correct, and train others to do the same as well. This will turn the tide of this patriotism idolatry struggle much faster than fleeing the "middle ground" thinking the "flag-waving nonsense" will stop on it's own accord.

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Matt Lynn commented…

Comparing America to Israel is a dangerous game, friend.

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Anonymous commented…

I totally agree that we can long and hope for "sanctification of the material world". But why through "kingdom-patriotism" and not through the way of Christ the King who came proclaiming a trans-national Kingdom? I don't get how giving allegience to your nation is in any way helping the sanctification of the material world. Please explain.

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TheEvangelicalLiberal commented…

Interesting article, and Happy Independence Day for yesterday
though as a Brit of course I have a slightly different perspective on that! :-)
And Im very happy to say God bless America (along with God bless Afghanistan,
Surinam, North Korea and every other nation of this world).

I suppose what Im most interested in is cosmic patriotism a love for the world
and universe we all share. But of course that doesnt preclude a love for our
particular corner of it; in fact, if you cant love the bit you belong to, you
probably cant love the whole. (Just as if you cant love your own family or
colleagues, you probably cant love humanity as a whole.)

In my view patriotism can be either healthy or unhealthy. Patriotism
is okay, even good, so long as it doesnt become jingoism, isolationism,
xenophobia or my country, right or wrong. Its important to celebrate and be
grateful for our own nation, so long as that doesnt blind us to its faults or
cause us to hate, exclude or distrust those who belong to other nations or indeed
those who are critical of ours.

Im not familiar with the song America the beautiful. What
I particularly like about our own unofficial national anthem Jerusalem is its
message that England is at present only partially and potentially beautiful;
that it wont be fully beautiful until there is justice for the poor and
marginalised and alien. Its a yearning for the kingdom to come and a
commitment to work for that.

Bless you,

Harvey

Tim Ghali

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Tim Ghali commented…

I appreciated the spirit of the post (you even inspired to be blog about a couple posts about the 4th).

First though, I'm unconvinced that you cannot "compare" your country to Israel. Certainly, one cannot equate it because of the unique calling of ancient Israel (interestingly enough, you cannot really compare Israel today with ancient Israel either, fair?). Further, many see The Church in the NT as the "new Israel" but that's a different matter altogether. I do see the need for being grateful for your country - I think it's part of stewardship and the pursuit of a humble heart. The problem that I see is that many do not reflect on why/what exactly they are grateful for (which I think you illustrate in so many words). Over the years, I've become more sensitive (and even supportive) to the idea of patriotism but still very concerned with nationalism. From my perspective, you can still seek the Kingdom of God first and enjoy fireworks but it seems contradictory to go around saying that you love "God and Country."

Thanks for the solid writing KC.

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