Looking for another point of pride on our nation’s 242nd birthday?
Well, unlike the patriotic compositions of our mother country Great Britain, our paeans to our native or adoptive land do not presume a haughty superiority over other peoples and lands.
The very title and first line of one of Britain’s most popular songs — “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves” — say it all.
The island nation was God’s creation: “When Britain first, at heaven’s command / Arose from out the azure main / This was the charter of the land / And Guardian Angels sang this strain,” it continues.
And the following words make clear that God intended his British creation to be more blessed than others: “The nations not so blest as thee / Must, in their turn, to tyrants fall / While thou shalt flourish great and free / The dread and envy of them all.”
The same is true for the beautiful and stirring “Land of Hope and Glory. The “hope and glory” realm is not exactly the same as our “shining city on the hill” that foreigners are free to emulate or not.
Rather, the lyrics spell out a presumption that it’s not up to Britons to make their nation good and great — and expansionist. Since God was and is on Britain’s side from the get-go, it’s He who makes the island great and a conqueror of others.
Listen and be stirred … but not envious: “Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free / How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee? / Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set / God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.”
True, inheriting values and ideas from the governance of ancient Athens, England is the mother of the free and has been since the signing at Runnymede in 1215 of Magna Carta and the creation of a parliamentary system of governance with the rule of law supreme and, eventually, the relegation of the monarchy to the quaint role of powerless national symbol.
But Mother England’s national vanity and an imperious English national persona put some light between us and her. Ask any British immigrant here.
Our songs and national tributes do not presume that God is on our side or that He made us great — or is making us great. Or that He will lend a mighty sword to help us conquer others should we choose such a course.
The American assumption about America is the opposite of the British self-assumption. For us it is a call on the Almighty to guide us toward goodness and greatness, for us to roll up our sleeves and make America good — as the deity gives us the light to see what national goodness is.
Listen to the words of “America the Beautiful” and their beseechment to God for help: “America! America! / God shed His grace on thee / And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!”
Hear “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” implore the deity’s embrace: “Our fathers’ God to Thee / Author of liberty / To Thee we sing / Long may our land be bright / With freedom’s holy light / Protect us by Thy might / Great God our King.”
This is extraordinary compared to some encomiums composed for the adoration of other nations by their citizens.
American poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell, in his 1876 “Fourth of July Ode,” recognizes that “our fathers fought for liberty” but asks whether we got — and kept — what they sought:
“Are we free from vanity / Free from pride, and free from self / Free from love of power and pelf / From everything that’s beggarly?”
His question is a kind of warning against the blinding intoxication of self-congratulation and a dearth of self-restraint in the American self-perception and worldview.
It is a question that should be answerable, though not necessarily easily, by a people modest and self-effacing enough — yet sufficiently self-confident — to have turned into a patriotic ditty the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” originally a British composition that made fun of the American colonist rubes who were the Redcoats’ comrades in arms in the French and Indian War.
Self-effacing modesty, humor and a firm moral ethos are what the “shining city on the hill “was all about. We hope it shall remain so as we make our way toward our 243rd celebration of national independence, mightily moral and making ourselves mightily moral still.
⦁ Ralph Z. Hallow, the chief political correspondent of commentary, served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation fellow in urban journalism at Northwestern University and resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar.
Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.