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Catholic Culture News

The disturbance of patriotic hymns on July 4th

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 05, 2024

When it comes to the hymns sung at Mass for the celebration of America’s Independence Day, some Catholics may feel considerable discomfort. In many places, of course, this pain is mitigated by priests who are not afraid to preach that Catholics today must adopt an attitude toward patriotism and the State which would have been far more familiar to Christians in the Roman Empire than it was to our parents or grandparents in America in the 1940s.

Even in that wartime period the strong cultural unity between Church and State in America tended to be overrated. In any case, the day when both the American flag and the Papal flag were displayed inside our churches is now long and appropriately gone. In fact, in most places today, I expect the Catholic discomfort with the emotional identification of Church with Country lies primarily in the traditional hymns sung at Masses on July 4th.

For example, America (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”) rattles on about our “sweet land of liberty” without any suggestion that the nature of Christian liberty is even remotely understood. This is part of a traditional (and secular) American mythology. Moreover, the identification of America as the “Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” jars anyone with a Catholic understanding of either Divine Revelation or human religious history. Other verses refer to “sweet freedom’s song” and even “freedom’s holy light”, when the context is clearly political rather than spiritual. Indeed, we must sing “Let freedom ring!” more in accordance with American mythology than with a true understanding of St. Paul’s crucial comment on freedom from sin: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

America the Beautiful does a much better job with such themes, of course, and surely it ought to be our national anthem. When it refers to “pilgrim” feet, it is not making a sectarian religious statement. Yet again, the idea that the pioneers beat “a thoroughfare for freedom…across the wilderness” is a gross exaggeration, and is not purposefully true at all in any Christian sense. So even here, we have something of that Protestant “city on a hill” rhetoric which misunderstands the meaning of Scripture in these matters. Still, this hymn is genuinely redeemed by its recognition that whatever America is, it is not yet perfect: The words pray that God will give America grace and “crown thy good with brotherhood”; that God will mend America’s flaws and “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” So we may give America the Beautiful a pass, and sing it well.

Then there is Lloyd Stone’s more recent “This is my song”, which has gathered steam in our churches ever since it became so progressively fashionable never to say a good thing about the United States without emphasizing that other nations are good and worthy as well. America has my heart, it tells us, but there are other hearts in other lands. America is beautiful, it agrees, but there is beauty in other places, too. This hymn sets a series of platitudes to one of the schmaltziest tunes imaginable—the melody is that of Sibelius’ Finlandia—and one can see why it so easily brings tears to the eye.

Unfortunately, even though the words were written in 1934, they reek of a rather banal and very contemporary political correctness. “You can celebrate your own country,” they seem endlessly to emphasize, “but only with a series of formally-expressed caveats.” The whole thing invites a very simple criticism: Never belabor the obvious.

Other traditional “national” hymns could be cited, of course, most of them (if I recall) not even as good as these. And indeed, I do not say that we cannot appreciate even the worst of them because of their warm familial, cultural and national associations. The oldest among us probably grew up singing some of them in elementary school. The sentiments are not all bad, and some of them are very good indeed.

But what I do say is that there are cringeworthy lines in all of them, lines that ought to make any serious Catholic uncomfortable when prompted to belt them out in Church. The chief argument against our patriotic hymns, of course, is that they so often confuse the American dream of political freedom with the Catholic goal of freedom from sin. Both goals, sadly, are frequently honored only in the breach. A secondary flaw is the refusal of such hymns to acknowledge the difference between the inescapable failure of the political ideal and the inescapable triumph of Christ.

Even “This is my song” reveals a flaw: Its saccharine preaching is an insult to anyone with a genuinely Christian understanding of the world. It hammers away at a legitimate but painfully politically-correct message which most Catholics today simply do not need to hear—a deliberate psychological correction of a problem that no longer exists. Its impact is heightened by what we might call its saccharinity. While beautiful in its own way, it cloys.

One of the powers and the dangers of music is that it stimulates our emotions. This is fine when the purpose is to engage us more fully as human persons in the worship of God. It is not so fine when the purpose of that engagement is to enhance mere feelings, or a primarily secular message, or even a positive message that is so obviously fashionable to a fault in the secular world. Happily, in many local churches, as in my own, we can count on the homily to strike a corrective note when it comes to God and patriotism.

Still, there may be others besides myself who find themselves uncomfortable with at least some of the hymns sung at Mass on America’s Independence Day. The sadness grows as our culture becomes increasingly swept up in a diabolical view of freedom. either as a deliberate rebellion against God or as a false freedom of thought rooted only in an ever-shifting political correctness. Anyway, if you experience this sort of discomfort in Church on July 4th, I just want you to know: You are not alone.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jul. 16, 2024 6:29 AM ET USA

    Thanks to garedog for mentioning the Navy Hymn, which praises God and His providence and asks His blessing to protect His people.

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Jul. 09, 2024 1:19 PM ET USA

    In my own parish and plenty of others, the American flag, along with the Vatican flag, is still displayed in the front of church. Those days are not gone. And as imperfect as patriotic themed hymns like "America the Beautiful" might be, in this secular era, church is often the only place we hear them.

  • Posted by: JIZ - Jul. 06, 2024 2:33 PM ET USA

    Thank you for these observations; I had similar sentiments at Mass on the Fourth as the priest prayed Preface for Independence Day I ("His message took form in the vision of our founding fathers ..."). On the other hand, God of our fathers, whose almighty hand," included in the Adoremus Hymnal, seems largely free of the shortcomings you've mentioned, and may be a particularly appropriate hymn for the Fourth.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 06, 2024 2:02 PM ET USA

    james-w-anderson8230: Thanks for your comment, but I don't understand where you see me saying that praising our country's achievements denigrates other countries. It was precisely my criticism of This is my Song that it seems to want to needlessly guard against this problem by ensuring that we say nothing good about America without acknowledging that other countries are good, too, which is rather silly. My larger concern was with singing patriotic songs in Church that seem to assign an almost Messianic character to a nation, especially while praising a false vision of liberty which can only lead us down the wrong path (and already has).

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jul. 05, 2024 10:57 PM ET USA

    I'm the cantor at an Eastern-rite Catholic church in a town with a large Navy presence. Normally everything we sing is purely eastern, and western hymns rarely cross our lips. However, on Memorial Day weekend, I can never resist singing the Navy Hymn, "Eternal Father Strong to Save".

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jul. 05, 2024 6:49 PM ET USA

    I have sung in Catholic Church choirs all my life and I disagree with your comments. Praising our country's achievements doesn't denigrate other countries.