We find ourselves at the gate of another Fourth of July weekend, a time when family and friends gather to celebrate the birth of this nation with barbecues by day and fireworks by night.
When it comes to celebrating July 4, we certainly know what we’re doing. Our mailboxes are filled with circulars advertising various cuts of meat, meal pairings, and flag-themed napkins. This weekend, the brave will flock to local beaches despite overcrowding in honor of the birth of this nation. There will be joy, rest, and camaraderie throughout the land.
In the midst of these celebrations, there is a nagging question that needs to be answered, but often is not: What exactly are we celebrating? What is this weekend all about?
To find the answer, I decided to search through the traditional ballads of American patriotism, the very songs people sing on July 4 to honor this nation with words like these:
O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
These words, of course, constitute the end of the well-known song, “America the Beautiful,” which was written to describe aspects of this great nation, such as “alabaster cities…undimmed by human tears” in a country seeking God’s grace and brotherhood from sea to sea.
But do these words really describe America today? Where are our alabaster cities in which there is no human sadness?1 Apart from the words of this song, is the average American beseeching God’s grace for this nation? Does the average American even acknowledge the presence of God? How do we reconcile the concept of brotherhood with the reality that America has never been more divided along political, socioeconomic, and in some cases, even racial lines?
Perhaps this song was written as hyperbole…as an exaggeration…so let us find the essence of this nation in a different song:
Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of Liberty,
To thee we sing,
Long may our land be bright
With Freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by thy might
Great God, our King.
Surely these words from the famous song, “America, My Country ’Tis of Thee” must teach us what we’re celebrating on the Fourth of July. Ours is a nation of liberty, “bright with Freedom’s holy light.” We are a people humbly beseeching the “Great God, our King” to “protect us by Thy might.”
Something seems wrong here, as well.
While I can remember patriotically singing these words in 1984 as a child, I am finding it impossible to apply them to the country in which I live in 2016.
Indeed, there is a significant disconnect between what we commemorate and sing about on July 4, and what we actually live every other day of the year. The difference is so prominent that, frankly, I don’t recognize the America described in these lyrics.
Although I couldn’t recognize America in the words of any of the traditional patriotic ballads, I did find one song that paints a familiar picture of modern America:
I hopped off the plane at L.A.X. with a dream and my cardigan
Welcome to the land of fame, excess, whoa! am I gonna fit in?
Jumped in the cab, here I am for the first time
Look to my right, and I see the Hollywood sign
This is all so crazy, everybody seems so famous
My tummy’s turnin’ and I’m feelin’ kinda homesick
Too much pressure and I’m nervous
That’s when the taxi man turned on the radio
And the Jay-Z song was on (x 3)
So I put my hands up, they’re playin’ my song
The butterflies fly away
I’m noddin’ my head like Yeah!
Movin’ my hips like Yeah!
Got my hands up, they’re playin’ my song
And now I’m gonna be okay
Yeah! It’s a party in the USA!
To me, this song paints a more familiar picture of modern America than the traditional ballads that speak about freedom, liberty, and “one nation under God.”
Where is this nation that exists “under God?” Some modern scholars argue that America was never a Christian nation to begin with, which may be true, but one cannot deny the national awareness of God in our history. The Founding Fathers established this nation on the foundation of theocentric natural law following the theories of John Locke, William Blackstone, and Baron von Montesquieu whose writings were saturated with Christian ideals and Scriptural quotations. So embedded were these values that the early decisions of the United States Supreme Court confirmed them as a source of common law.
Today, however, it is hard to see America as a nation “under God.” Every so often, we hear about a conscious effort to blot out any reference to God from our government, schools, and public squares. Moreover, there seems to be a growing hostility towards religion generally, and Christianity especially. Our media is engaged in an open war against Christianity. Consider the Washington Post blogger who wrote an article a few years ago entitled “Five Christian Theologies Scarier Than Halloween” with the byline, “Here are some christian theologies that will prove halloween should be the least of our nightmares.” Consider also the fact that, like clockwork, networks typically air some type of documentary questioning a tenet of the Christian faith every year around Christmas and Easter. Consider ABC’s failed sitcom “GCB,” which is an acronym for its original name, “Good Christian Bitches,” a network show full of vitriol and hatred against the Christian faith. It would be impossible to list every instance of anti-Christian rhetoric in our nation’s films, television shows, music, etc., because there are far too many instances to quantify.
Even if America was not an overtly Christian nation, there was nonetheless a national awareness of God or some higher power that influenced our policies and decisions. Today, we no longer gaze up towards God and seek His Truth, but instead, we gaze at ourselves and ask, “What is my truth?” The end result, sadly, is the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage, and a general hostility to anything related to God. How far we’ve come from the words of the ballad, “Protect us by Thy might, Great God, our King.”
The same sad realities may be seen when speaking about liberty and “freedom’s holy light.” This country was founded by men and women who escaped political and religious persecution in Europe, but today, we do very little to safeguard people from the very same persecution. Of course, we have no problem invading nations and destabilizing governments, but the reasons for doing so are increasingly self-serving. Our liberty today has become the liberty to sin and to lead a completely self-centered life. It is the liberty to kill one’s own unborn child if he or she is seen as an inconvenience. It is the liberty to accumulate and hoard as much wealth as possible even if one’s brethren are hungry and suffering. It is the liberty to legislate according to the will of the masses, even if their will is repugnant to God and contrary to nature. It is, ultimately, the liberty to be free of God.
Now, the purpose of highlighting these issues is not simply to criticize this once great nation, but to emphasize the fact that the principles we once held dear to our hearts, the principles that we reflected in our patriotic ballads, are becoming increasingly distorted in modern America.
We cannot simply blame our leaders and government for the way things have become. Each of us bears responsibility for the failures of modern America. Perhaps we didn’t do enough. Did we fight against secularization? Did we serve Christ in the poor and downtrodden? Did we manifest Christ’s light to others around us?
One of the most beautiful texts from the Early Church is the Letter to Diognetos, which was written towards the end of the second century. We don’t know exactly who wrote it, but we do know that it was written by someone who had recently learned about Christianity and was describing it to someone else who knew nothing about Christianity. Consider this excerpt:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they have children; but they do not kill their children. They share everything, but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world… Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.
How beautiful this description of early Christians is. Think about how they must have lived such that an outsider would describe them in this way. And then let us ask ourselves, “Am I living such a life? Would people in this nation describe me in such a way? Or would they see me as one trying to fit in, even if that means giving up my faith?”
As July 4 approaches, we have a unique responsibility to examine our lives in this society and ask whether we are transfiguring it by our mere presence. The Russian Orthodox saint, Seraphim of Sarov, famously wrote, “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
Let us strive to work out our salvation for the sake of our souls and for the sake of this great nation whose birthday we celebrate this weekend.
- In our nearest metropolis, about 250,000 persons of the population are homeless. ↩︎