America the Beautiful became my favorite song when Smokey Robinson included it in a stirring and soulful mash-up with the National Anthem at Fenway Park during Game 5 of the 1986 World Series. It was flat out inspiring.
When the song was written in 1893 by Katharine Bates as she hiked Pikes Peak in Colorado, she penned it as a poem. The line in her first verse — “God shed his grace on thee” – almost suggests that America was divinely chosen. That it is great as a matter of God’s will. Of course, at the time, women didn’t have the right to vote, and African-Americans were still
largely treated as chattel.
To understand the point Bates was actually making you have to read her poem in its entirety. It’s not about the greatness of America; it is about the promise of an America that can be great. While she marvels at the physical and topography of the “fruited plains” and “alabaster cities’” she also recognizes that our country is not without its blemishes.
My favorite verse:
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law
Bates doesn’t view America as intrinsically great – great is something you have to work at because nations, like people, will sometimes surrender to lesser instincts. Nations sometimes take a route that is less than exceptional.
The America Bates celebrates, is a nation that resists its lesser instincts and seeks higher ground. An America that leans toward virtue because no matter how we celebrate affluence, power and celebrity, we should revere character. It is not the strength of our military that makes us great, but that we seek to deploy it righteously. Our wealth isn’t extraordinary, but our charity is. And our intellect isn’t unique, but that we use it to improve the human condition that is so distinguishing.
Or as Bates herself once commented, “our greatness must be crowned with goodness.”
This election cycle seems to be running contrary to Bates’ America. Donald Trump isn’t asking America to resist its lesser instincts – he is making the case to succumb to them.
I appreciate that in our media saturated country, celebrity often equates with success. And there is nothing that inherently disqualifies a reality show star from being a politician. But somehow we didn’t even get the good guy character on the show – we got the villain. How have so many people lost sight of virtue amidst the swirl of celebrity? What does it say about us as a nation that such a self-interested, narcissistic and terribly flawed man can be honored with the trust and privilege of our highest office?
Bates had it right. She was celebrating leaders who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life. Who believed success should be noble and gains divine.
That is the America I celebrate today. Happy Fourth of July.