As Americans go to church and celebrate their independence on the same day this year, it’s only fitting to talk about a hymn: “America the Beautiful.”
We think of “America the Beautiful” as a patriotic song, like “God Bless America” or the national anthem. But it was originally written as a hymn and is Christian at its core. According to Hymnary.org, it has been published in 475 hymnals, sometimes titled by its first line, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”
The line between praising God and praising America can be difficult to walk. God is not an American, and He does not show favoritism between nations. He’s really not impressed by American independence. He’s the Author of all history, the Creator of all the universe. American history is a tiny blip on His radar. He existed before American independence and He will continue to exist long after America vanishes from the Earth (and long after the Earth vanishes, too). His plans for salvation aren’t contingent on the existence of a political entity called the United States of America.
Praise the Lord for that.
That doesn’t mean patriotism isn’t right, however. Patriotism, at its best, is about gratitude. Psalm 95 says, “Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.” We see this modeled in a patriotic context in Nehemiah. The people of Jerusalem had just finished rebuilding the city walls and were preparing to dedicate them in a city-wide ceremony. It was the birth of a new era for the people of Jerusalem, and they celebrated it:
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. . . . The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God . . . And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. (Nehemiah 12:27, 40, and 43)
Was everything perfect in Nehemiah’s Jerusalem? No. We learn in chapter 13 that Nehemiah had to discipline people for many different reasons, and that they were not living in accordance with various parts of their national ideals. Yet the people had great joy because of what God had provided for them.
As Americans, we have much to be grateful for. Celebrating our freedom should not be an opportunity to draw attention to ourselves. It should be an opportunity to be grateful for God’s blessings and the actions of past generations that make freedom possible.
“America the Beautiful” is an expression of that attitude of gratefulness. It’s a song about America, but it’s not a song about us.
The first verse is all about Creation: the spacious skies, the purple mountains, the fruited plains. We didn’t do any of that. No human can take credit for the Rocky Mountains or the Great Plains. America has stunningly beautiful geography, and plenty of other countries do not. As Americans, we should consider that something worth thanking God for.
The second verse is about people, but it’s still not about us. It’s about the “pilgrim feet / Whose stern, impassioned stress / A thoroughfare for freedom beat / Across the wilderness.” It recognizes the bravery and intentionality of the settlers who came to the New World to escape religious persecution and establish a new way of life based on freedom. But the song does not carry any illusions about their imperfections. “America! America! / God mend thine every flaw.” It has the humility to admit error and ask for providential correction. America is only as good as its people’s ability to discipline itself and be disciplined by good and fair laws. “Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law,” the verse ends, reminding us of the importance of the rule of law, not of men.
Verse three is about gratitude for the war dead, who sacrificed their lives for the perpetuation of freedom. It’s not machismo and doesn’t glory in war. It praises those who loved “mercy more than life,” not those who loved violence or killing. And the verse again concludes with a plea to God for improvement. America will be imperfect “Till all success be nobleness / And every grain divine,” i.e., forever.
The first verse focuses on Creation, at the beginning of time. The second verse is on the distant past. The third is on the more recent past. And the fourth is on the future. The song skips right over the present and speaks of the “patriot dream / That sees beyond the years.” The fourth verse concludes the same way the first did, with a plea for God’s grace and the brotherhood of all Americans.
“America the Beautiful” is a patriotic song, but it’s never about us. It’s never about the president or Congress or the Supreme Court. It’s never about our inventions or technology. It’s never about our people being better than any other people. It fixes our gaze heavenward as we express gratitude for blessings that God has provided.
And we do have so much to be thankful for. Whether it’s the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, the Appalachians or the Rockies, the Great Lakes or our two oceans, the plains of the Midwest or the deserts of the Southwest, this truly is a beautiful country.
It is one of the great tragedies of patriotic symbolism that Uncle Sam is considered the personification of America. It wasn’t always that way. Previously, Americans had a better sense of the difference between the country and the government. Uncle Sam was understood as the personification of the government. Columbia, a woman, was the personification of the country.
They had it right. America is much too beautiful to be a man.