A few days ago, the Supreme Court decided that a football coach at a public high school could say a prayer at midfield after the game without violating the Constitution. How did we arrive at this pass, that the Constitution, meant to guarantee personal, local, municipal, and state liberties from encroachment by the national government, could ever have been used as a club to batter down those same liberties?
Think also of the sheer expense of it all. Consider the waste of money, time, intelligence, and attention, when—if the truth be known—such an application of irrational hostility to expressions of religious faith by public actors in the public square would mean that pretty much all of the authors of the Constitution themselves would have to be lined up and shot for treason, along with all those generations of teachers, students, mayors, councilmen, soldiers, policemen, legislators, judges, and ordinary people who assumed that to appeal to God on behalf of one’s school, town, state, or country was a good and culture-forming thing to do—even, they might say, our duty.
People will say that religion by its very nature is divisive, and if they have a slight historical sense, they may appeal to the dreadful Thirty Years’ War that embroiled western and central Europe at the beginning of the age of the modern nation. But the reverse is true. It’s human beings who are divisive, especially when earthly goods are all they hope for.
Outside of the partial exception of Islam, almost every war that men have ever fought has had nothing at all to do with religion, and everything to do with earthly goods and earthly motivations: wealth, power, land, vengeance, fear, blood-lust, even boredom. Almost the only thing with the power to bring enemies together is the sense that they all stand in judgment under a just God, to whom they must appeal in both the joys and the sorrows of life, and to whom they must answer when this life, all too brief, has passed away. Kneeling and contrition are great equalizers.
Now, whether the coach was wise in the specific form he chose for his prayer, I don’t know. That’s a question that can only be answered by someone who knows the details of the circumstances. Be that as it may, it occurs to me that the coach might instead have sung, at midfield, joined by some of his players, any one of our great national hymns, and then his opponents would have painted themselves into a corner. Then they would have had to explain how it is unconstitutional to sing a patriotic song in a public school, if the patriotic song establishes its patriotism on the solid ground of the worship of God.
Can’t sing “America the Beautiful”? How about just quoting the motto on all our coins, “In God We Trust”? Must we tear down the Lincoln Memorial because the president quotes Scripture to powerful effect, even to remind the partisans on both sides of the Civil War that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous forever”?
Perhaps the coach and some of the players might have sung the simple and stately song, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” whose melody we took from the British “God Save the King,” and re-named as “America.” The lyrics, written in 1831 by a young seminarian, Samuel Francis Smith, were intended to be sung as a hymn, and that is what the song is. Smith organized it according to a simple but powerful succession of thoughts and images. The first stanza reminds us of the sacrifices, even unto death, that our fathers made, particularly the Pilgrim fathers who suffered so much, to establish this land, so that freedom might ring “from every mountainside.”
The second stanza moves us into the present. It brings that ringing joy near to home, making it more intimate, and quiet, and holy. It isn’t just Pikes Peak and the Mississippi River that move us. “I love thy rocks and rills,” we sing, “Thy woods and templed hills.” Think of the beauty of the rolling countryside of Ohio, or the evergreen forests of New England. The hills are like temples, where you go to worship God. And the holiness is there to touch you: “My heart with rapture thrills, Like that above.” Smith is using the word rapture advisedly. Think of Saint Paul, who in a vision was ravished into the third heaven, and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter,” so profound and beautiful they were (2 Corinthians 12:4). We say that our love of this land, our homeland, is somehow like that, a foretaste of it.
In the third stanza, Smith calls for what is downright miraculous, the sign of a new world: “Let stones their silence break!” He is thinking of what Jesus says to the Pharisees, when he enters Jerusalem and the people strew his way with palms, crying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees grumble and ask him to tell the people to shut up, but Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
See what Smith has done? We Americans do not need an earthly king, because we acknowledge our heavenly king. America is meant to herald a purer way of life, a more genuine liberty than men have ever known before, because we derive our liberty from God.
That leads us to the final and climactic stanza, where Smith has been aiming his thoughts all along. The God of our fathers is the Author of liberty. Smith is using his words precisely. The author, Latin auctor, literally gives increase, because he has the authority to do so; and the liberty that God gives is authentic. It is not mere license, which enslaves. Since we want to be free, we beg our freedom from Him alone who can set us free, raising us up to what Saint Paul calls “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). And the last line clinches it all, when we make the identification that the hymn has been leading up to: “Great God, our King!”
If singing that in a public school is to be deemed unconstitutional, then we really are slaves to the central beast.
What are the secularists afraid of? That we will have something that makes us one again? That we will know the joy of a patriotism that is near to faith in God, and that lifts our eyes past the mire of political enmity, intrigue, vindictiveness, short-sightedness, and hatred? That we might rejoice and be glad? Is the clear means toward something like national feeling to be regarded as a betrayal of the nation, just because of a puritanical secularism, a shut heart and a dim imagination? Must everyone cease to sing, because the village atheist is hoarse?
Not so! Let us sing it, then—and never be ashamed.
Editor’s note: The preceding is a taste of what will be available each week in the author’s new Substack, “Word and Song” in the “Hymn” section. You can subscribe to Anthony Esolen’s Substack here.