This week I have been working on a sermon titled “American—Christian” that addresses the relationship between our American citizenship and our faith as followers of Jesus. It’s not easy. Part of the difficulty is that it’s hard to find worship resources related to our July 4th Independence Day celebrations. It’s apparently a taboo topic in many worship settings.
It’s understandable that lectionary resources for the global church don’t include liturgies and prayers that American churches can use. There is, however, a corresponding dearth of material in our American church hymnals and other worship resources. We certainly want to celebrate that which is good about the United States and that which we love about our homeland. One song that does that is “America the Beautiful.” But what resources can we draw on to make it more than an unreflective patriotic exercise? To help us do that, I chose the hymns “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” and “I Bind My Heart this Tide.”
This tension has always run through our public life and our faith communities. As I was working on my sermon I ran across an instance of this in the days leading up to World War II. In 1938, the Jewish immigrant composer Irving Berlin revived and slightly changes his song “God Bless America” that he had originally written in 1918. It became an instant success as Kate Smith sang it in patriotic venues. The familiar lyrics to the song are:
“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. ”
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.
American folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie soon grew tired of hearing Kate Smith singing it on the radio. He thought it was unrealistically patriotic and complacent about the social ills in our country. In response, he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” which has since become one of our most popular American folk songs sung by many different folk singers. We all know the first verse:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
Many of us are not as familiar with the more edgy verses, such as the following one that reflects the social sensibilities Guthrie developed as a boy in Oklahoma where he and his family lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Our circumstances are somewhat different today but this same social and spiritual tension still runs through our public life. The challenge for our churches and places of worship is to recognize it and to respond as a people of faith.