It's OK to Sing "America, The Beautiful" In Church
By KC McGinnis
July 3, 2012
KC McGinnis is a writer, photojournalist, world traveler, mustard aficionado, gospel lover and now blogger based in Iowa City, Iowa. You can view more of his work at his website and at his blog, What Matters to God. Follow KC on Twitter: @CousinKC.
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.