We sang one of my favorite patriotic songs in Church on Sunday, “America the Beautiful.” It has a charming history. It was written by Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, when she was visiting Colorado College in 1893 to teach summer school. On her journey across the country, Bates witnessed first-hand vast “amber waves” of wheat covering the Great Plains. She also admired images of futuristic gleaming white cities in the Chicago World’s Fair. But above all she was stirred by a beautiful panoramic view of America atop Pike’s Peak. The thrilling experience of being surrounded by ”purple mountain majesties” with “fruited plains” stretching far into the distance below led Bates to write “America the Beautiful,” a poem originally entitled “Pike’s Peak.”
For more than a century, Katherine Lee Bates’s words have inspired Americans with a vision of a land graced by natural beauty. But Bates celebrates more than the country’s manifold physical beauties. She also speaks to America’s ideals, such as freedom and brotherhood and self-sacrifice. She evokes the dreams of pilgrims and patriots and all those “who more than self their country loved, And mercy more than life!” As much as its fertile fields and majestic mountains, the lyrics celebrate America’s inspiring ideals and aspirations. These, too, make America beautiful to the degree it succeeds in achieving them.
On this point, Bates does not engage in self-congratulatory triumphalism. She recognizes that America, however blessed with natural beauties, lofty ideals, and patriot dreams, has flaws. The America she writes of is far from perfect, especially measured against the patriot dream of America as a city on a hill. What most moved me in singing “America the Beautiful” on Sunday was its admonitory subtext encouraging the country to live up to its ideals.
In every verse, Bates invokes Heaven’s help to perfect an imperfect nation and people. America needs God’s grace to mend its flaws and refine its gold. It needs to ground liberty in self-control and the rule of law. It needs to complement material success with nobleness, and gain (or prosperity) with godliness. Or as Bates puts it in the initial version of the text: “God shed His grace on thee, Till selfish gain no longer stain, The banner of the free!”
If America needed these reminders in the late nineteenth century, how much more do we need them today! On this 4th of July, the need to embrace what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” seems particularly urgent. Now I realize that this is not new in our history. I have been reminded of this as I read Jon Meacham’s recent book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. To embrace our better angels is an ongoing national as well as personal challenge for every generation of Americans, each of which has reason to sing: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw.” Yet on this Independence Day, I sing these familiar lines more aware than ever of our national flaws and, at the same time, more grateful than ever for our glorious ideals. This year I sing “America the Beautiful” with especially deep feelings for our beloved beautiful country and for the patriot dreams that are still ours to fulfill!