America the Beautiful at Mass

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I woke up early on Sunday morning to the sound of a much-needed long, soaking rain. I laid in bed a long time, alternating prayers of gratitude with wrestling something that is probably going to get me in trouble.

Sunday, of course, was 9/11. At my parish on any national commemoration, it’s become tradition to sing America the Beautiful as a recessional. I’ve been in a leadership role in music for twenty-two years now, and in that time my feelings on this have gone back and forth multiple times. I’ve led the song PLENTY of times.

America the Beautiful is a beautiful song. It’s an aspirational song—in other words, it describes what America is meant to be.

But I’m not sure it belongs at Mass.

For a long time, the single phrase, “God mend thine every flaw” has saved it for me in a liturgical context. But Sunday morning, lying in bed, I thought:

We have a strong contingent of Americans who are systematically trying to erase America’s flaws from history books. They don’t think we need to know them. They think it’s unpatriotic to name America’s national sins… even though this same philosophy calls America to “get back to its Christian values,” which would include the reality that acknowledging our failures is intrinsic to the practice of Christianity.

In contemplative circles lately, I have been encountering the idea of holding conflicting ideas in tension. America has been a place of great freedom, innovation, and human achievement. It has also been, in the same places and the same times, a place of great oppression, injustice, and hedonism and the pursuit of money without concern for the good of others. (A modern example: Regulation is looked at as bad because people perceive it as stymying economic growth. By our national actions, then, we demonstrate that we believe money is more important than safety, health, and the dignity of human beings made in God’s image. Theology of the Body in action: it is through our bodies that we do–or don’t–make God’s image visible in the world.)

I love America the Beautiful. But I think when we tear up singing it, it’s not because of what America COULD be or SHOULD be, but because of a false sense that this is what America IS.

Christian life—for Catholics especially—is supposed to embrace the tension between what we aspire to be and the ways we fall short. We have penitential seasons. We are supposed to go to confession often.

But most of us don’t, and even those of us who do (full disclosure: I am not one of them, by default of busy-ness, and I recognize that’s just an excuse) don’t recognize the flaws in the way we view patriotism.

In recent years, a large segment of Christianity has wrapped up the cross in the flag. A lot of people have pursued, and more have justified, or at least winked at, some pretty heinous things in pursuit of that false worship. False, because God and patriotism are not the same thing. God comes first. Way, WAY before country.

There is no question that it is appropriate to sing America the Beautiful at patriotic events.

But at church?

Doesn’t singing America the Beautiful put things in the wrong order? Like, we put the nation in first place, highlighting its ideals and ignoring its failures, and then, as an afterthought, ask God to bless it?

I’m asking this as a legit question. I’m willing to listen to another perspective on this, for sure. Because of COURSE, it is totally appropriate to ask God to bless America. But what purpose does it serve to ignore the divided, toxic reality in which America exists right now and substitute an idealized version of America that never has really existed except in our hopes and prayers? Not a Godly one.

A lot of people died on 9/11. They deserve to be remembered. They deserve to be prayed for. They deserve to be remembered and prayed for at Mass. But America the Beautiful doesn’t do any of that. It shifts the focus away from the victims and substitutes rah-rah patriotism. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to sing, for instance, “On Eagle’s Wings” or “Be Not Afraid”?

If we want to show a proper priority of God and country, wouldn’t it be better to observe national holiday weekends with “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” or “This Is My Song, O God of All The Nations”?

Basically, we use America the Beautiful because it’s beloved on a secular level. We do it because of the “pastoral” judgment. But I’m not convinced it actually IS pastoral in impact.

As I said, I am willing to be convinced, but I ask that if you respond, please do so courteously and respectfully, and with prayer, as I prayed through the discernment of this post. I am putting this out there for respectful discussion in the spirit of Jesus Christ.

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