I have a troubled relationship with patriotic “hymns.” More often than not, they are hymns to a mythic, imagined country, a history glossed over by a mirror shine of nostalgia and blind, unthinking devotion. That we would sing them on Sunday mornings in a worship service is something that has always made me uncomfortable.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an American, a citizen of these United States. I love this country, and I take my citizenship here very seriously. I try to stay up on current events. I vote. I do what I can to be a part of this great experiment. But that being said, I make no secret my discomfort with rabid devotion and unthinking, uncritical patriotism. This is probably because I grew up in the 90’s, and saw how my country changed after 9/11/2001.
I’ve said this many times before, but I’ll share it again. I learned the news in my 9th grade geography class. I walked in, and for an hour, we watched the news as it unfolded. When I saw the towers fall, the first words that fell out of my shocked, numbed lips were “I hate war.” Because in my young mind, I was terrified that I would be drafted. The draft never happened, thank God, but still that day signaled a shift in the country that I love.
I witnessed the birth of two different kinds of patriotism.
Later that day, I saw a gas station sign that said “Nuke The Middle East.” It didn’t take even a day for the rage and hate machine to get started. Living in East Texas, that isn’t so surprising. Far away from the centers of power, war was a distant, favorable thought for many, one that proved our national character as one of strength and power. Harassment of the (admittedly few) students of Middle-Eastern descent began in force in the school. All over, things were rapidly changing. Color coded terrorist threat-level meters became commonplace images on the news. Vicious attacks on our Muslim neighbors increased dramatically, and though beforehand they had lived lives of quiet obscurity, now their faith had been so publicly warped by extremists, they felt the backlash simply for being from a different place and worshipping a different way. A new wave of nationalism had arisen.
But I heard stories of a different kind of patriotism, mostly from the news. Nothing I saw first hand mind you, but it did filter down. I heard stories of how New York was quiet for a week after the attack, and how everyone was reminded that they were neighbors. I saw protests emerge, defending neighbors and denouncing needless war. I saw new kinds of activism, community engagement that resembled what I had imagined to be the utopian vision of America that was promised to me in my history books. Not the guts-and -glory nationalism of “nuke ’em all, let God sort ’em out” attitudes. Not “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” This kind of patriotism was but a seed for me, though. it took many years for this version of love for the nation to emerge.
So I look back on it now, and I think of how this patriotism has grown in my heart. It looks like a sapling, not a mighty tree. It is fragile, but it grows. Though it has weathered some harsh conditions in the past two years, it still reaches for the sun. It’s beginning to flower, as I fumble awkwardly for words to express my own political opinions. But it does beckon me to think about the patriotic hymns of my youth. Specifically, America the Beautiful.
Of all the patriotic songs I know, I think it’s my favorite. Not the first verse, mind you, but the second one. Admittedly, it still bears a glossy sheen of problematic nostalgia, but it has grown on me.