The past few decades have seen a great debate about the separation of church and state. Christian symbols and references to God are often purged from history books and the public landscape on the grounds that the First Amendment prohibition on a state religion mandated a secular nation. The claim that America was established apart from God and religion is easily debunked when we read the words of Founders, but all we have to do is sing patriotic songs to see how inextricably the idea of divine providence is to American freedom.
The two most obvious songs that link God and country are Irving Berlin’s “God bless America” and Lee Greenwood’s “God bless the USA.” Both songs are recent additions to the American patriotic anthology. Berlin wrote “God bless America” in 1938 and originally included an introduction that foreshadowed the looming world war. “God bless the USA” was released in 1984, but achieved classic status in 1991 with America’s victory in the Persian Gulf War. These two recent songs are far from the only songs that link America to divine providence, however.
Although “Yankee Doodle” is remembered today as the anthem of the Revolutionary War, “Chester” was a song that rivaled “Yankee Doodle” in popularity at the time. Originally composed as a hymn in 1770 by William Billings, an associate of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, the original lyrics were revised in 1778 and the song became a popular marching song for Continental soldiers:
Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains;
We fear them not, we trust in God—
New England’s God forever reigns.
The song specifically credited God with leading the Continental Army to victory over the British:
When God inspired us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forced,
Their ships were shattered in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our coast.
Another early patriotic song that often served as an unofficial national anthem was “My Country Tis of Thee.” This song combines the melody of the English national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” with words written by Samuel Francis Smith in 1831. The fourth verse pays homage to God as the author of liberty and asks for his protection:
Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” may be the most theological of the American patriotic songs. The lyrics were written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe while the music was borrowed by “John Brown’s Body,” which in turn came from a Methodist hymn, “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” by William Steffe. From the opening line of “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” every stanza carries overt references the Christian God, but the fourth verse is particularly religious:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which officially became the national anthem in 1931, has religious references. The story of the “Star Spangled Banner” is well known. The lyrics were penned by Francis Scott Key as he watched the bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry from the deck of a British warship in 1814. Key’s words were set to the music of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song composed in 1775.
The fourth verse of the “Star Spangled Banner,” like several other patriotic songs, credits God with saving the United States. It also contains the origin of “In God we trust,” the official motto of the United States since 1956.
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.
The “lost” verse of the “Star Spangled Banner” became an internet sensation in 2010 with an impromptu performance by a former Marine named Louis at a Tea Party rally in Douglasville, Ga. Louis’ rendition of the fourth verse was posted on You Tube and eventually generated more than 11 million views. (You might even catch a glimpse of the author of this article who was in attendance that day standing by the blue tent).
These patriotic songs take their cue from the father of the country himself, George Washington. In his inaugural address in 1789, Washington gave credit for American independence to God, saying, “No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States.” Washington also warned future generations, “the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”
Regardless of your views on church and state separation, when you sing patriotic songs this Independence Day you will be praising God. That follows the tradition that goes back to the earliest days of our Republic.