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The dawn’s early light

The patriotic balance of America’s national anthem

Council Bluffs, Iowa, police present the colors during the singing of the national anthem as a group of T-6 Texan planes perform a flyover before Game 1 of the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb., on June 24. Associated Press/Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz

The dawn’s early light
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Americans typically start civic events with our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. A comparison of the text of the anthem with those of other countries demonstrates a healthy, balanced patriotism appropriate for Christians that stands in stark contrast to the mystical, quasi-idolatrous language of others.

Countries differ in their oaths, anthems, and civic commitments. France’s La Marseillaise is a rousing song of war: “Do you hear, in the countryside, the roar of those ferocious soldiers? They’re coming right into your arms to cut the throats of your sons, your comrades!” Thus, “To arms, citizens!” Many martial anthems seem to glorify martyrdom, such as Mexico’s that repeatedly speaks of spilled blood and envisions “a tomb of honor.”

In contrast, others, like Canada’s, focus on natural grandeur: “O Canada! Here pines and maples grow, great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow…!”

Some invoke prayers of thanksgiving and blessing. Switzerland sings, “Pray, Free Swiss, pray! For you feel and understand that God dwelleth in this land!”

In stark contrast are those that pledge slavish obedience to the nation, the government, or a ruling ideology. These employ a sacred vocabulary asserting a spiritual nationhood and divine destiny for the country.

Russia’s anthem provides a case in point:

Russia is our sacred state,

Russia is our beloved country.
A mighty will, great glory -
Your dignity for all time!

Be glorified, our free Fatherland…

Russia’s anthem claims the consecration (“sacred”) of a country and goes on to suggest a collective Russian spirit, a mystical historical force: “Russia is our beloved country, a mighty will….” That Russian spirit, allegedly, shapes history. This sense of a supernatural Russian destiny can be found in Vladimir Putin’s assertion of a Russian mir. “Mir” means “world” or “peace,” but the idea is more substantial: a Russian civilization, an ideological, cultural, and geographic domain that encompasses Ukraine and Russia’s near abroad.

We are given strength by our fidelity to the Fatherland.
So it was, so it is, and it will always be so!

Be glorified, our free Fatherland…

The U.S. national anthem helps us by portraying a robust yet bounded patriotism. 

Anthems that call the nation the “Fatherland” demand unquestioning loyalty. The Fatherland as a political or national ideology provides meaning and purpose, rather than existing to provide common goods such as “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare….”

The Fatherland is more than the sum of its parts: it is a superior entity in and of itself. The populace consists of “subjects,” not “citizens.” There is no “We the People.” Subjects are to give glory and obedience to the Fatherland (and its elite).

Christians recognize the idolatry of such claims throughout history, from Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol to the Nazis’ Aryan Fatherland. The U.S. national anthem is different. It helps us by portraying a robust yet bounded patriotism.

“O Say Can You See?” was written as a poem by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812.

The rarely sung, final verse portrays an appropriate patriotism for Christians.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace may the heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!

American citizens may be called upon to defend their neighbors and their homes. Self-defense is a just cause, unlike rapacious conquest, criminal violence, or terrorism. Their actions are in pursuit of peace, not the glory of the Fatherland or to impose an ideology on others.

Victory and peace are gifts: America was a “heaven-rescued land” as it fought off, for the second time, the world’s most powerful navy and second greatest army. Americans should indeed be thankful!

What follows are the most stirring lines of the entire poem:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto—“In God is our trust,”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Washington, D.C., does not have divine carte blanche to coerce our citizens or bully weaker countries. There is no American moral superiority. Instead, America is called to moral reckoning. If we are to be successful, we must act justly.

In slightly different wording, our national motto is enshrined in the anthem: In God is our trust. The patriotic Christian recognizes that no ideology, party, or government position should be the center of our moral compass. God is at the center. At the same time, He has blessed us with a tremendous heritage of ordered liberty that we are to conserve and express gratitude for. He placed us in this homeland at this time and place, and He has given us the responsibility, as citizens, to pray, nurture, and protect this “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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