Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words to America the Beautiful on Pike’s Peak in 1895, and the version in the Notes below was published in 1904. Bates was an English professor at Wellesley College who traveled cross-country by train to teach at Colorado College. Bates was obviously inspired by the scenery on her trip, but she ignored America’s political culture.
Less than 40 years after the Civil War, Bates’ words were a political fallacy. America was a nation built on white supremacy and it remained infested with burning crosses and lynchings. If God shed his grace on America and crowned its good with brotherhood, then we were poor stewards of God’s grace, and we failed to foster the brotherhood of other races and religions.
When I first sang America the Beautiful in the 1950s, those words were no closer to political reality. Pervasive racial discrimination remained until the civil rights laws of the 1960s. Then in 2016 white Christians, frustrated with their loss of political power and filled with nostalgic illusions of the 1950s, elected a president who pledged to Make America Great Again. It was back to the future.
Today America is neither blessed nor beautiful, and we are more divided than at any time since 1860. Since over 70% of Americans still claim to be Christians, perhaps we should listen to the words of Jesus if we hope to become a blessed and beautiful nation. In Luke’s Beatitudes, Jesus sends us a mixed message: He comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Jesus first blessed those who weep, and those who are hated, excluded and insulted because of the Son of Man. Then Jesus laid on the woes, or curses, that pertain to most of us:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26)
Blessed with democracy, Americans have produced the world’s most prosperous and powerful nation. As masters of our political destiny, we have produced a materialistic and hedonistic culture; and along the way, a vast majority of white Christians sacrificed Jesus on the altar of partisan politics. We have made a mess of Christianity and democracy.
The church is complicit in America’s moral and political mess. The church should not promote individual candidates or a political party, but it should oppose politicians motivated by the evil thoughts described by Jesus. They include sexual immorality, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mk 7:21-23) Do they remind you of anyone?
Jesus never mentioned democracy, freedom or human rights since they were irrelevant in his ancient times; but they are relevant to our faith and politics today. To prevent the blessings of democracy from becoming a curse, Americans must become better stewards of democracy by promoting the reconciliation of their divisive politics based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus.
Those teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. In politics that requires balancing individual and group wants with providing for the common good. If we don’t provide for the common good, our political woes will negate the blessings of democracy.
Most Christians have ignored the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus in their politics. Their faith is as dead as a body without a spirit (James 2:26). But take heart. God can mend our every flaw, and confirm our soul in self control, and our liberty in law. But God needs our help. Americans must promote a politics of reconciliation to crown God’s good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
America the Beautiful, by Katharine Lee Bates (1904):
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
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!
O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
The United Methodist Hymnal, p 696
For more on America the Beautiful, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful.
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