God, Country, and Song

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: "War is  @#!*% ".

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: “War is @#!*% “.

Since tomorrow is Veterans Day in the United States, the last hymn at church this morning was The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

I am always uncomfortable about singing patriotic songs at church. One the one hand, civil society needs a metaphysical backdrop if it is going to function. Humans simply do not form a community without a common sense, however vague, of morality and the meaning of life. On the other, that same civil society is an historical, changing thing, not an absolute: it’s claims on our allegiance are limited, it’s culture always flawed, it’s mechanisms of governance always tainted by greed and lust for power.

I love God and country, but only one of those has an absolute claim to my allegiance. America, an oh-so-human reality, needs God, but God does not need America. But the temptation is to conflate God and country, as if they are always on the same page.

If we are going to sing a patriotic song at church, I say stick to America the Beautiful, a pretty, boring, mild-mannered song of the lowest common denominator; change “America” to “Canada” and no one would ever tell the difference.

Our official national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner is not fitting for church being purely secular. But it is a wonderful song: not a generic list of the good qualities of any old country but a specific scene from a specific battle: Americans on a British prison ship hear the bombardment of a U.S. fort and as the sun rises ask if anyone can see if the U.S. flag still flies, if the fort has withstood the hellish bombing. The last line “does the star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?” is beautiful for its ambiguity: are they asking if the land of the free and brave still has a flag, or if the land over which the flag flies is still free and brave? It is a problem posed, a challenge to our collective conscience. All nations should have an anthem so ambiguous: what is a nation if not an ambiguous reality?

The Battle Hymn of the Republic brooks no such ambiguity. America (the Union, specifically) is doing God’s work by launching a scorched-earth campaign against the Confederacy.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

And so forth. The verses are full of references to the eschaton, when Christ will come again to judge mankind and utter his final verdict. It is a religious interpretation of a conflict that left 600,000 men dead. British historian Paul Johnson claims that as it dragged on, the American Civil War became essentially a religious war; I tend to agree. Formally, the song is a prophetic utterance in the tradition of Jeremiah.

A prophesy, by the way, that came true. Having outmaneuvered the Confederate Army opposing him, General Sherman crossed the Appalachian mountains with a massive, battle hardened Army in one of the great logistical feats of American military history, and began zig-zaging unopposed through Georgia and the Carolinas, destroying whatever crops and livestock his men could not eat, and looting the estates of wealthy landowners before burning them to the ground. Though Sherman was often challenged about the ethics of the campaign, he never seemed troubled: the South wanted war, Sherman gave it to them.

That was the attitude of American warfare from the end of the Revolution to the end of the World War II: war is not a sport for kings, and certainly not an act of humanitarianism, but hell on earth. It ends when all the young men on the other side are dead, wounded or otherwise broken: just ask the Japanese. We have since grown more civilized, which may be why we have not won many wars lately. Sometimes as a society advances it becomes blind to basic realities.

The essential problem for me: does an awful reality like Sherman’s March have anything to do with Divine Providence? Are the lyrics of the Battle Hymn mere cultural chauvinism, political tribalism, ascribed to God? If so, wouldn’t that make The Battle Hymn a blasphemy? Or does a country need to sometime gird up its loins, go forth and smite the enemy, as if God were on its side, because otherwise it simply would not survive?

I doubt anybody else at church besides me sang The Battle Hymn thinking about this stuff: it is in the book, it has a jaunty tune, it is Veteran’s Day, so we sang it.

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