What is the Beauty in “America the Beautiful?”

American FlagYesterday, my son participated in a Veteran’s Day program and a big choir of kids sang, America the Beautiful. I was brought to the verge of tears several times as I listened to the lyrics – I wish more Americans knew these words well.

The most commonly known words in this hymn are the first stanza, which describes the majesty of the American landscape, which is no doubt among the great glories of the earth.

But the rest of the hymn (7 verses!) is about the character of the American people, and how the greatness of this nation is confirmed by honor, grace and mercy.

I often reflect on what it means for us that our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, is a retelling of a horrendous battle, a description of war. This is what we sing to celebrate the United States.

That’s not to diminish in any way the sacrifice of those who have  persevered through the horrors of war.  But that is only one dimension of the American historical experience, and holding it up as our National Anthem, suggests (to me) that we wish violent conquest to be the primary lens through which we tell our story as a people.

I wonder what it would be like if we sang America the Beautiful at the beginning of our sports events, inaugurations and civic gatherings.  It is just as powerful a testament to American greatness, and provides a vision of a people with a wide range of gifts, unified by a collective courage and graciousness.

If this song was the first message we turned to at times when we want to express our patriotism, we would remind ourselves, over and over, throughout our lifetimes, to:

 

“Crown thy good with brotherhood”

“Confirm thy soul, through self-control”

“Love mercy more than life”

“Let all success be nobleness”

and

“Let selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.”

 

 

 

Here are the lyrics to America the Beautiful, by Katherine Lee Bates.

 

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

 

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

 

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife.

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America! America!

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!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

 

O beautiful for halcyon skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the enameled plain!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

Till souls wax fair as earth and air

And music-hearted sea!

 

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,

Whose stem impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

Till paths be wrought through

wilds of thought

By pilgrim foot and knee!

 

O beautiful for glory-tale

Of liberating strife

When once and twice,

for man’s avail

Men lavished precious life!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

Till selfish gain no longer stain

The banner of the free!

 

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

Till nobler men keep once again

Thy whiter jubilee!

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