Today is the Fourth of July, “Independence Day,” here in America, and I have such mixed feelings.
Our current form of government is obviously broken, but still, the American experiment is one of the best forms of government that humans have tried.
Technically, our country is a “constitutionally limited representative democratic republic” We elect representatives instead of deciding them ourselves, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule, so it is democratic. And the infrastructure, the total form of government, is a republic, a somewhat voluntary association of individual states, each with their own government.
Unfortunately, much of the democratic process has been diluted and defiled – by gerrymandering that pollutes the vote, by a Congress bent on obstruction rather than cooperation, including stonewalling Supreme Court candidates, and a flood of executive orders to dismantle the protections and laws of previous administrations. The delicate balance of legislature, executive, and judicial branches has been deeply disturbed by extremist agendas. Folks, we are in deep doo-doo.
On the other hand, we live in a country of breathtaking beauty and abundant resources. My favorite patriotic song is not our National Anthem that celebrates bombs bursting and military victories. My favorite patriotic song is one that celebrates a vision of a world that works for everyone, a country that seeks nobleness and brotherhood.
America the Beautiful was inspired by the view from the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado. In the summer of 1893, poet Katharine Lee Bates was teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Later she remembered:
“One day some of the other teachers and 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.”
On the pinnacle of the mountain, a poem started to come to her, and she wrote the words down upon returning to her hotel room. The poem was first published with the name Pikes Peak in the Independence Day edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895. Over the years, several existing pieces of music were adapted to the poem. A hymn tune composed by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward in 1882 was first published with Bates’ poem in 1910 as America the Beautiful.
Here is my commentary on the stunning lyrics.
America The Beautiful
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.
America is so blessed by beauty and abundance. It’s hard to understand how some folks only think of how to exploit that instead of protecting it. President Teddy Roosevelt said it this way:
“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”….
“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
(Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments, and protected about 230 million acres of public land.)
And think for a moment about how our experience of life be transformed if each of us was devoted to brotherhood and sisterhood. Truly we could live in a state of grace here in this beautiful land, blessed by the goodness of abundant resources, free education, the Bill of Rights, and so much more… if we would only crown all that goodness with the beautiful quality we call “brotherhood” – the sense that we are all family.
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, Thy liberty in law.
The Pilgrims left England to find a place where they could practice their own version of religion. Liberty was a rough road, paved for us by ancestors who were passionate about creating and defending freedom. And we need to get back to fixing our flaws, using self control, and understanding that our liberty comes from the laws that we have enacted to be fair and just with each other.
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.
So we have had wars and troubles, and heroes have stepped forward to serve a cause larger than the self. From firemen to warriors, people have given their life energy, even unto death, to serve the Greater Good, embodying the quality of noble service.
We have been given golden opportunities, but that gold continues to need to be purified and refined so that we come to understand that true success is not just about profit. Too many of us have diluted the gift we were given in blind obedience to the Bottom Line. Instead of worshipping the gains in the Gross National Product, let’s think about making gains in the Happiness Index, about what makes a desirable quality of life, about embracing a Generosity of Spirit. Only then can we live in harmony with the 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.
Our ancestors had a vision, a dream of a future where the cities would be shining places where people live in joy and freedom, instead of servitude and tears. We like to think of America as “the land of opportunity,” but that’s not really the case for everybody. Some people have worked way too hard at preserving wealth, gaining power, and protecting their own advantages. True equality is still a long ways off.
So again, we ask God to help us see more clearly, to give us the grace of seeking and finding the ways that we are the same, instead of looking for the differences that separate us.
The United States was founded on the idea that we are stronger together. But that means ALL of us. We can’t keep leaving people out of the American dream and expect it to work.
America has such potential to be truly beautiful. Let’s make it so.