So you’ve probably heard about all the pundits and twitter hacks who made racist and xenophobic remarks about a Coca-cola ad aired during the Super Bowl. In this commercial, the song America the Beautiful was sung in many different languages, which upset some folks, who then said a bunch of nasty things.
It’s a shame and a near-perfect irony that people would behave in such an ugly way to defend a song called America the Beautiful. It’s like saying you hate this country because we don’t sing God Bless America enough.
We see the inconsistencies in other nations’ patriotism easily, of course. As we watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sochi, which was a spectacular catalogue of Russian history and achievement, we heard news stories about the contemporary abuses of the Russian government – the suppression of political dissidents; the targeting of human rights and free speech activists.
Whether you focus on your neighbor or yourself, the lesson is the same: you contradict the majesty of a national myth if you defend it with viciousness.
Fortunately for us, the best corrective to the combativeness and myopic nationalism of the protests over the Coke commercial is the found within the lyrics of America the Beautiful, itself.
This composition, though familiar to most Americans, has a revolutionary message not many of us understand.
According to America the Beautiful, first published as a poem in 1893, then set to music in 1904, the essential greatness of our nation is not wealth, or military might; it’s not geopolitical heft or cultural superiority. No, what makes America great is our beauty.
The first and most famous verse of the song marvels at the beauty of our geography and horizons – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains and the fruited plains.
The four verses that follow focus on the beauty of America’s people – our relationships with one another and our character as neighbors. These verses celebrate American’s potential for loyalty, perseverance, generosity and goodwill.
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law.
May God thy gold refine,
‘Til all success be nobleness,
And every goal divine.
In the midst of our culture wars and our most cynical and vitriolic impulses, this hymn says, “Remember America, that you can be beautiful. Don’t champion estrangement, don’t settle for for bitterness. Release yourself from superficial wealth, and from violent words and actions.”
Pursue and embrace beauty.
The beauty of this nation is in grace, which we pray God will shed on us all. It’s the beauty of the beloved community and the common good.
These are words I’ll gladly hear sung any time, in any language.