“America, America, God mend thy every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”
Not the text for an invocation at a national political convention later this month, but it would sure be fitting there.
We sang that patriotic prayer at Mass July 4, sending the congregation forth to continue the secular feast day celebration with sizzling food on the grill and noisy fireworks in the evening sky.
Oh, you didn’t recognize the words from verse two of “America the Beautiful?” No problem. That’s when almost all of us have to whip out the hymnal, after showing off that we have verse one in the memory bank.
This wasn’t the first time those particular sentiments have stimulated some more-cynical-than-spiritual commentary between me and a pew mate after the music stops. Got an example ripped from the headlines to exemplify “every flaw?” Yep. Suggestions for government or citizens’ self-control? Indeed.
Still, I love to belt out a familiar anthem in the company of a crowd. I love it that the oldies invoke God. As in “America:” “Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light. Protect us by thy might, Great God our King.”
And in “God Bless America:” “Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above.”
I continued in the groove that evening, joining in patriotic songs old and new on the PBS “Capital Fourth” televised concert. I always generously crank up the volume to share with the neighbors. Family and friends know to stay beyond arms’ length when it’s the “1812 Overture” finale because I assume the guest conductor role. The roar of cannons is a truly religious experience.
What makes me feel good, though, can make others feel queasy. It probably defines me as an oldie myself. While I’m thinking Oh, Lord, help us do this “land of the free and home of the brave thing” right, this time, it’s only a couple of steps to the right for the perspective that we’re anointed with a divine stamp of approval and next, we segue into “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Oh my, that’s getting a bit feverish, must be the lingering holiday heat from the grill or the pyrotechnics.
But to trail to the end of that fervent philosophizing, polls that detect a dwindling interest in religion by younger generations conclude that many people are turned off by its politicization and its role in polarization of people.
Many’s the time a song or a prayer has been used as a slogan or battle cry.
A mind musing about the patriotic anthem phenomenon can flap and flutter in all directions like the flag I raise with sincere heart on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day. I’ve flown the stars-and-stripes with attitude on Labor Day, too, back in the day of my newspaper union activism when God’s name was not invoked with piety and we were more likely singing “We Shall Overcome.” God forbid that any sensitive Hawaii resident would raise a flag on Statehood Day next month, that most awkward of holidays celebrated primarily with a paid day off work, enjoyed even by those offended by the history of it.
Speaking of the offended, my musing takes me to the minimal mention in local news media about a flap following the May 29 Kamehameha Schools Kapalama commencement. About a dozen of the 444 members of the class of 2016 chose to remain seated while the “Star Spangled Banner” was sung. Interim head of school Debbie Lindsey took heat on social media for her letter to faculty saying that the behavior was “disrespectful to our school and our country … particularly unfortunate that it occurred over Memorial Day weekend, knowing that thousands of KS Kapalama family members, faculty, staff and alumni have served in our country’s military to defend and uphold the freedoms we enjoy today.”
The flap fluttered on, with school faculty and staff chiming in with a letter supporting Lindsey, and veterans of Hawaiian and other ancestry pointing out that their military service defended the freedom of speech those kids chose to exercise in their negative way. Hope their further education raises them to exemplify their cultural pride and broaden their world view.
It’s just as well that we don’t add our national anthem to the hymnal, so no one has to go through a mental spasm about standing to sing it. Besides, it is more of a triumphant statement than a prayerful poem.
The kerfuffle at Kamehameha made me look up a letter-to-the-editor that I remembered. It was last Nov. 28 that Roy L. Benham, respected Hawaiian kupuna and former Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association president, wrote the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to exhort a return to the tradition of opening sports events with audience participation in singing the national anthem rather than the trend of listening to a celebrity struggling with it, sometimes off-key and improvising words and tune. Said Benham: “it was thrilling to hear all the voices singing the national and state anthems.”
Not long after the Kamehameha spin on the song was twittering out, another view of “The Star Spangled Banner” went viral on social media as well as in professional news coverage. An assistant principal from a Florida middle school was so moved on her visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., that she broke out in an impromptu rendition of the anthem, to the delight of dozens of other tourists. The acoustics at the monument were phenomenal and, of course, someone in her party caught the whole thing on his cellphone. Star Genleah Swain, whose voice reflected her role in the choir at Family Worship and Praise Center in Tallahassee, told her hometown newspaper: “If I can do this with the gift that God gave me, to touch more lives, then that is what I want to do.”
God and country
A retired military veteran and lector at my parish is so fervent about combining his patriotism and prayer that he puts a continuing ad in our parish bulletin: “How about us singing ‘God Bless America’ at the end of every Sunday Mass?” Patrick Brent pitched that idea to me one day during Lent and wasn’t swayed by my response about the tradition of matching music to the liturgical season or holy day. Clearly a higher authority prevailed so far but he hasn’t given up.
Those who will be worshipping at the altar of sports will hopefully be hearing frequent repetition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Summer Olympic Games Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since 1924, it has been tradition for the national anthem of gold medal winners to be played after they receive their medals.
But the rules limit the rendition to 80 seconds so you may be skipping a line or two. It’s a fascinating history, the use of nationalistic tunes at the non-violent, non-militaristic competition between nations. There were times when athletes were ashamed to sing the anthem of their nation’s conqueror, or when substitute songs were used to ease a sticky political situation. One such occasion was the choice of athletes from countries in the dissolving Soviet Union to have Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” represent them.
Have a look at the internet stories on the subject.
In the privacy of your own home, or even your favorite sports pub, it’s perfectly acceptable to switch out another tune for the national anthem to salute our athletes. Have at it with “America the Beautiful,” why don’t you?
“America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”