Minding the Issues - Right Song, Wrong Stanza For Celebrating Our Nation

Recently we've seen a controversy about whether the Star-Spangled Banner should be sung in Spanish or only in English. But if it's important to think about the language in which the song is rendered, isn't it even more important to think about the song itself, about what it means?

If we thought about the words that come out of our mouths when we sing the national anthem - specifically its first stanza -- we'd realize that its only point is to celebrate and glorify victory in battle - it's a song of war, exulting in victory over our foes, with only a one-line afterthought to show tentatively why we might deserve to be victorious. If I didn't know better, I might think it's the war song of some neo-Fascist group.

The Fourth of July, dedicated to commemoration of our nation's ideals, might be a good occasion to ask whether the Star-Spangled Banner really expresses those ideals.

This holiday is meant to celebrate our nation's virtues, its nobility of purpose, and its grand history wherein that nobility and that virtue are displayed. Why, then, do we mark it by singing a song that only commemorates one particular battle - a battle that was part of a stupid and futile war, a battle whose sole distinction is that it was one of the few that saved the War of 1812 from being remembered as an utter catastrophe. As a patriotic emblem, the first stanza of "The Star Spangled Banner" is a bust.

As we habitually sing the words, do we really mean to imply that the most important fact in our country's history was that a banner flew over an embattled fort after a long night of fighting? Is mere victory in battle, regardless of our cause, what we wish to celebrate? Has "Our country right or wrong" become our rationale -- a rationale that validates our acting with impunity in the world? Are we celebrating "might" with no consideration of "right?" If these are our convictions, they are better left unexpressed.

There is a better alternative, and it is close at hand:
Oh, thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blessed with vict'ry and peace, may our heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation!
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!

This of course is the splendid last stanza of "The Star Spangled Banner," as different from the first stanza as day from night. This last stanza celebrates a nation dedicated to ideals derived from a higher source, and it exhorts us to measure our accomplishments against those ideals. It honors the tragic but noble sacrifices necessary to achieve those ideals in a world where ideals are always in peril.

In saying "- conquer we must, when our cause it is just" (not "for our cause it is just") the final stanza rejects the "Our country, right or wrong" mentality.

More than poetic taste is involved. After all, the purpose of singing a national anthem is to reinforce certain ways of thinking in the minds of those who sing it. The first stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner" reinforces an unthinking tribal loyalty to our country, based only on the fact that it is OUR country. This narrow chauvinism puts us on the same plane as any other nation, good, bad or indifferent. Any thought of a virtuous purpose is strictly an afterthought, added on to justify the aggressiveness of the rest. Surely we can do better than that.

By contrast, the final stanza expresses dedication to values greater than mere national existence, values that constitute our greatness and help justify our claim to nobility. We profess to be a nation grateful for its freedom and intent on using that freedom to achieve the best that humans are capable of. That is the best and truest patriotism, and that is what the last stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner" stands for. It is our proper anthem, and deserves to be recognized as such.

A Note on My Religious Dilemma

Recently a nice man in Westlake sent me a copy, for my spiritual enlightenment, of The Book of Mormon. This was in response to my column "On the Teaching of Religion." In the accompanying note my benefactor said, essentially, that the Book or Mormon is true because he knows it is true.

I appreciate the gesture of this man from Westlake. I appreciate his generosity, and I appreciate his simply presenting me with his thoughts instead of trying to impose his dogma on me (though to be brutally honest, I can't tell what his attitude would be if Mormons controlled the government). I'd like to respond appropriately.

However, I'm left wondering. He says that I should believe in The Book of Mormon. But what if a Catholic sent me a statement of Catholic doctrine? What if a mainstream Protestant sent me a statement of his or her church's doctrine? What if a Muslim sent me the Koran? Or if a Hindu sent me the sacred writings of Hinduism? What should I say to them? They believe in their own doctrines just as strongly as the gentleman from Westlake believes in Mormonism. If I accepted The Book of Mormon as truth, I would be showing a regrettable lack of respect for these others. How can I respect all these persons and their doctrines equally - and I believe they deserve equal respect - if I accept any one of the doctrines as true? You can see my dilemma.

The only way out is to recognize that no religious doctrines are true in the straightforward sense of that term. Some would say that my religious doctrine is "true for me;" but "true for me" is an oxymoron. If I say there is a tree on the lawn outside, my statement is either true or false. To say that it is true for one person and false for another is to ratify hallucination.

Which is to say that religion is a special part of our lives, and religious language is not like the language we use in science or in our ordinary life. We may say our religious doctrines are true, and indeed we may act as if they are true, but we must realize that in doing so we mean "true" in a special figurative sense. And whereas scientific truth sometimes entitles the government to regulate our lives in certain ways, the attribution of religious "truth" never does.

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Volume 2, Issue 13, Posted 2:02 PM, 06.20.06