Stephen Brehe

I enjoy singing our national songs. Maybe you will get to sing several of them this weekend at church. “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” “God Bless Our Native Land,” and, of course, "The Star-Spangled Banner.” Hopefully you’ll get to sing the last stanza, which says, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’”

My favorite national hymn is “America the Beautiful.” There was nothing better than singing “O beautiful for spacious skies” under the Big Sky surrounded by “purple mountain majesties” when we had Mass on the grass at St. Peter’s Cathedral on Independence Day weekends.

Many people think “America the Beautiful” would make a better national anthem. For certain, most of us could sing all the notes. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is notorious for its difficulty to sing. After all, how many of us can successfully bridge its 14-note range? Even accomplished singers get the jitters before performing it.

But there’s another reason that “America the Beautiful” makes a better national statement of who we are (and who we strive to become). The song not only speaks to the natural beauty of our land but also to the cherished values that guide us through our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. And, importantly, it reminds us that we are not perfect. In the second stanza we sing:

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

“America the Beautiful” celebrates that we are a nation in the process of becoming what God wants for us. Headlines and the nightly news, however, remind us that “alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears” remain our goal, not something we have accomplished. Much work remains.

Composing “America the Beautiful” was a mountain-top experience for Katherine Lee Bates, a prominent writer and independent-minded social activist, who wrote her famous poem in 1893.

“I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”

Later, Samuel Ward of Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, N.J., composed the music. Bates’ poem and Ward’s music were published in 1910 and entitled “America the Beautiful.”

"The Star-Spangled Banner" has been our official national anthem since 1931, although “America the Beautiful” and other national hymns were considered. NPR recently did a special report about these two national hymns. Here’s what they concluded: “’The Star-Spangled Banner’ boldly proclaims the country's greatness as fact, ‘America the Beautiful’ is more aspirational. Bates is not asking whether the flag has survived an artillery strike. Rather, this young feminist poet, who had just emerged from a deep depression, is asking if the nation, and perhaps the world, can ever live up to its high ideals.” That’s spot on.

Given what is taking place in our body politic these days, we probably would receive a failing grade when compared to the high ideals of Bates’ poem. The late William Sloan Coffin Jr., one of America’s great 20th century prophets and preachers, wrote: “It’s a profound Christian conviction that we all belong one to another, every one of us on the face of the Earth — from the pope to the loneliest wino, and that’s the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is always that we’re putting asunder what God has joined together.”

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The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired Dean of St. Peter’s Cathedral of Helena. 


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