If you want to know America, study the words of our national anthems. In his terrific book This Land That I Love, John Shaw offers at least eight songs that qualify as true American anthems, or “songs that people sing together on ceremonial or celebratory occasions when they want to evoke, share, or express a public emotion about nationhood.” The earliest is “Hail, Columbia” (1789) and the most recent is “This Land is Your Land” (1940). In between are “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814), “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (1831), “Dixie” (about 1859), “America the Beautiful” (1895), “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1899), and “God Bless America” (1938).
What’s so remarkable about America is that we’re a nation based largely on ideals. What makes us one people is not our language, or our ethnicity, or our family backgrounds, or our religious creeds. Our essential unifying bond is a set of civic beliefs – which is why anyone can become an American. Our anthems reflect this astonishing fact.
The most celebrated ideal in these eight songs is freedom. All but one (“Dixie”) stress it. We hail those “who fought and bled in freedom’s cause.” We sing of “a sweet land of liberty.” Our voices “ring with the harmonies of Liberty.” We go “walking that freedom highway.” There are many other examples. According to our anthems, if America must be sung in one word, that word is freedom.
Yet two of these anthems link our nation to freedom’s opposite. “We have come over a way that with tears have been watered / We have come, treading our path of the blood of the slaughtered.” And “By the relief office I see my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
I’m glad that these hard sentences are in our anthems. I like living in country big enough, and free enough, to include in its pantheon the painful truths told by James Weldon Johnson in his African American national anthem and by Woody Guthrie in his anthem of America’s ignored and dispossessed. Our foundational songs tell us that American patriotism is more than mere celebration.
Four of these anthems praise America’s natural beauty. I sing to America that “I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills.” God bless America “from the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam.” America is beautiful “from sea to shining sea.” That “golden valley” was made for you and me. What a huge, continent-sized country we live in – and how beautiful!
Most of our anthems invoke the divine. “In Heaven we place a manly trust, that truth and justice will prevail, and every scheme of bondage fail.” We’re a “heaven rescued land” whose “motto” is to trust God. We sing to “our fathers’ God, Author of liberty.” We pray that “shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand.” And of course, we sing “God bless America, land that I love.”
At the same time, like the theme of freedom, the theme of America’s relationship to God comes in several flavors in these songs. Sometimes we’re simply grateful for God’s blessings. Sometimes we ask for divine protection and guidance. Sometimes, in my view, we come too close to suggesting that God especially favors America.
But sometimes, instead of believing that God today is on our side, we pray that tomorrow we can be a better people – perhaps more worthy of being on God’s side. From “America the Beautiful”: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee / Till selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free!” And: “America! America! May God thy gold refine / Till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!” There is no complacency here, no confidence in our collective rectitude, only a challenge in the form of a prayer.
“America the Beautiful” is my favorite American anthem. It was written by Katherine Lee Bates – a professor of English literature at Wellesley College who likely had socialist political leanings – during a cross-country trip from Massachusetts to Colorado in the summer of 1893. It was her first trip west, and she clearly fell in love – as I did during my first extended trip west – with America’s skies, mountains, prairies, and “waves of grain.” She originally called her song “America,” but to me the eventual popular title, “America the Beautiful” is even better.
Yet what I love most about this song is its confident hope that, with God’s help, this remarkable American experiment in ordered liberty can make us better tomorrow than we are today. “America! America! God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!” My admiration for this song continues to grow.
This article originally appeared in the Deseret News.