America the Beautiful
In a Memorial Day message to her congregation my colleague, Talitha Arnold in Santa Fe, reflected on the hymn by Katherine Lee Bates, “America the Beautiful.” Bates, a professor at Wellesley College, wrote it after scaling Pike’s Peak while teaching in a summer session at Colorado College.
I’ve always loved this hymn, though there have been times in my life when I was so disappointed in my country that it was hard to sing it.
The thing that has always spoken to me most in Bates’s hymn is that while it a celebration of America, it is not triumphalist or chauvinistic. It is a prayer asking God to refine, to better, and to redeem the nation,
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above thy fruited plain
God shed thy grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control
Thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine
Two weeks ago I wrote about the diminished legacy of liberal or “mainline” Protestantism in America in our own time.
In many respects, Bate’s hymn is an expression of that theology. The emphasis is not, as is so often true today, on American power or exceptionalism. It is on beauty, on sacrifice, mercy, self-control, liberty held in law. It reflects what can be called a “covenantal theology.” That is to say, in whatever measure America has God’s blessings, that blessing requires and depends upon the country fulfilling its part of the covenant. This has been largely lost today.
On the left such a hymn would be stricken as a lie which excuses a history of evil and oppression. To be sure, there is that. But it is not the whole story.
On the right, the emphasis has shifted to a pretty naked celebration of might, power and “greatness.”
For both, the element of a conditional covenant is gone. Either America is the “evil empire” beyond redemption, or it is “the greatest nation on earth,” fully entitled to practice its exceptionalism. This is one illustration of what I mean in speaking of the the loss of the theological witness of liberal Protestantism, that shaped our nation and self-understanding. We are poorer for this loss.
But perhaps that makes the singing or praying of this hymn all the more urgent. There are a lot of versions of it on You Tube, for your Memorial Day listening. Try the one by Ray Charles, or by the duo of Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Or, better, sing it or pray it yourself as your Memorial Day observance.
The photo shows a corner of our beloved Wallowa Lake and the Wallowa Mountains (not purple, but majestic) to the south.