I know this is a little late for the Fourth of July, but after the celebration and fireworks I think a little humility is in order. I generally agree with Walter Russell Mead’s weekend piece that we’re in good shape to face the future compared to the rest of the world, but that’s a pretty low bar, considering how screwed up much of the rest of the world is. But for all of our nation’s genuine exceptionalism, we’ve gotten ourselves into ourselves into some pretty unexceptional hot water: spending more than we take in, failing to provide for the future soundness of our public and private institutions, wallowing in a hedonistic and degenerate culture.
This is why I love “America the Beautiful” and agree with those campaigning to make it our national anthem, undoing the New Deal selection of “The Star Spangled Banner”. I have nothing against our current anthem, but the patriotism of “America the Beautiful” is more fitting for a republic in general, and our republic at this time in particular. I’m not talking about the war vs. nature themes of the two songs — like any conservative, I believe that war is the answer sometimes, depending on the question (though the War of 1812 we probably could have done without).
Rather, the song’s appeal is that it’s a prayer for God’s assistance, rather than simply a celebration of our wonderfulness. People often misinterpret the lyrics; when the first verse reads “God shed His grace on thee,” that’s not a statement of fact, as Ray Charles’s wonderful rendition implies (he improvises “God done shed His grace on thee, yes He did”), reflecting the understanding of most Americans. Rather, it’s a petition, an appeal, a hope: “May God shed His grace in thee.” It’s not “crowned thy good with brotherhood” but “may He crown thy good with brotherhood,” continuing the prayer for the solicitude of the Creator.
I think part of the reason we don’t get that, apart from the sin of pride, is that we don’t usually sing the other verses, which end in similar entreaties for the Almighty’s assistance: “God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!” and “May God thy gold refine Till all success be nobleness And every gain divine!” There’s no claim that the Lord has already mended our every flaw or refined our gold or shed His grace, but that we need His help in doing so.
It is especially important for the people of a republic, who have no king in this world, to acknowledge the Author of Liberty, as another fine song puts it. But at a time when we need all the mending and refining and grace we can get, an anthem that focuses our attention on that is all the more important.