FIRST CUP OF COFFEE Sipping my coffee, I watch as the horizon grows brighter with…What is it? Yes, It’s FREEDOM’S HOLY LIGHT!
Please Open Your Hymn Books to Page . . .
G.K. Chesterton called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” He meant that we are united by a creed not by the blood of a tribe or race or by a sacred myth. But let’s leave that to the political scientists. What do the citizens of a nation with the soul of a church need? They need hymns.
We Have Three
The Star Spangled Banner is not a hymn; it’s a drama. So put it aside. We have three national hymns.
The First National Anthem
“God Bless America / Land that I love / Stand beside her and guide her / Through the night with a light from above.” You know the rest, Written by the fervently patriotic Izzy Baline, aka Irving Berlin, who as a small boy saw his village in Siberia burned down by rampaging Cossacks. His parents fled to…Where else? And Izzy fell in love with America.
But GBA has its detractors. Our government subsidized NPR has played and replayed interviews with supercilious professors and pretentious actors who dismiss GBA as “syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith.” They say it is “a whitewash of everything wrong with America.” Wow! Kate Smith introduced GBA in 1938, just in time for everybody to learn it before we went to war in 1941.
Four years later, American tanks clanked into the Santo Tomas, the biggest Japanese internment camp in the Philippines. It was where they put civilians and included thousands of women and children. The battle for Manilla was still on. Explosions, gunfire, flares. Were the tanks American or Japanese? A hatch opened. A man wearing an unfamiliar uniform climbed out. He looked around and shouted, “Hi, folks.” The prisoners poured out of hiding and a lone voice began “God Bless America.” By the third line, everyone was singing. On 9/11. a motley congerie of congressmen sang it on the steps of the capital. (The ACLU did not protest.) Incidentally, Berlin donated the royalties of the song to the Boy Scouts of America.
And the Second
Our second national hymn is “America the Beautiful.” Katherine Bates wrote the words. A New England girl on her first trip West, she was awed by the miles and miles of “amber waves of grain,” etc. But her hymn is not just about agriculture. It’s about the “patriot dream / That sees beyond the years.” It appeals to God to shed his grace on America: “And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea.” The tune was written by Sam Ward, the organist at the Grace Episcopal Church in Newark. He says it came to him on a trip to Coney Island,
And the Third:
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Julia Ward Howe (Another Ward connection.) wrote the words. We sing it to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” The Brits, including the Queen, sang it at Winston Churchill’s funeral service. (His mother was an American.) And the entire Washington establishment sang it at the National Cathedral after 9 / 11. I listened closely. For several decades, the “nice people” had been unobtrusively, they hoped, altering the (to them shocking) line saying, : “As he died to make men holy, / Let us die to make them free.” They preferred “Let us live to make them free.” But at the 9 / 11 service our leaders sang it the old fashioned way.
And Once There Was a Fourth:
Actually we used to have four national hymns. At my father’s elementary school the students sang “My Country Tis of Thee” every morning. Written by a theology student, it was first performed in public at a church in Boston. Its first three verses are enough to give our contemporary political correctors the whim-whams (to quote Little Orphan Annie)—those “templed hills,” for example. But, oh, my, that last verse: “Our father’s God, to Thee, / Author of liberty, / To Thee we sing. / Long may our land be bright / With freedom’s holy light; / Protect us by Thy might / Great God, our King.” What about the atheists? the Wiccans? the Buddhists? etc.? And won’t the Feminists want a Queen instead of a King? The only equitable solution is to do a Charles Ives thing and have everybody sing their own words at the same time to the same tune, played by converging marching bands led by troops of majorettes. Talk about American!!