Are Patriotic Hymns Appropriate at Mass?

The Village Choir by Thomas Webster

It’s the 3rd of July and a Sunday, and that means many churchgoers in the United States are hearing hymns such as “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” by Samuel F. Smith. Many are taking to Twitter to complain about such hymns being sung in church. In an America online magazine article, Fr. James Martin writes that, “I have a problem with some of the patriotic songs sung during Masses in this country. It subordinates the Sacrifice of the Mass to the United States of America. Some of the songs make it sound like we are at a Fourth of July picnic.”

Now, Fr. Martin is really not known as the most orthodox priest, but in this case, many traditionalist types seem to agree wholeheartedly with him on this point. Consider, for instance, the argument put forth in Corpus Christi Watershed, “patriotic songs have no place whatsoever during mass. The reason is simple: sacred music for the liturgy serves one function and patriotic songs another. It is comparing apples and oranges. Nor does one diminish the other. Patriotic songs have a different milieu and serve a different purpose, even if God is mentioned.” Additionally, it says “it feels out of place to put country — no matter how great our love for it — at the center of the Eucharistic Feast.”

So, what are we to say? It seems that both traditionalists and die-hard liberals have found some common ground on this issue. Surely, then, patriotic hymns have no place at mass.

Well, I am going to take the contrary position. I believe patriotic hymns are appropriate at mass and that it is perfectly acceptable to sing them on Sundays such as this.

Now, let me be clear about a few things. First, purely secular hymns have no place in a worship service. Second, it would be inappropriate for any patriotic hymn to appear as the communion hymn. Finally, no secular holiday ought to be the primary focus of any worship service, though I do believe they may be mentioned or play a secondary role.

With that out of the way, allow me to present my defense of singing patriotic hymns at mass.

To begin, when I speak of a patriotic hymn, I speak of hymns such as “America, the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, and “God of Our Fathers.” What makes these particular pieces patriotic hymns is the element of the Divine. In “America, the Beautiful” for instance, says:

 America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.

And:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.

Consider “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which is primarily about God:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read the righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of all before his judgment seat;
O be swift, my soul, to answer him; be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

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 us holy, let us die that all be free!
While God is marching on.

“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” says:

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills.
My heart with rapture thrills
Like that above. 

Let music swell the breeze
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

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!

Finally, “God of Our Fathers” reads:

God of the ages, whose almighty hand
leads forth in beauty all the starry band
of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
our grateful songs before thy throne arise.

Thy love divine hath led us in the past;
in this free land with thee our lot is cast;
be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay,
thy Word our law, thy paths our chosen way.

From war's alarms, from deadly pestilence,
be thy strong arm our ever sure defense;
thy true religion in our hearts increase;
thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.

Refresh thy people on their toilsome way;
lead us from night to never-ending day;
fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
and glory, laud, and praise be ever thine.

Now, the central claim of both Fr. Martin and others seems to be that patriotic hymns are just out of place at mass, they just do not have anything to do with worship or the Eucharistic sacrifice, and, thus, should not be sung. Moreover, there tends to be another sentiment that secular things ought not to be featured at a mass.

But having just gone through the content of these hymns, it seems abundantly clear that they are hymns of praise, thanksgiving, and worship. They implore God to shower grace upon our country (certainly a noble request), they proclaim the authority and the power of God and how Christ died to “make us holy.” They profess God as the author of our liberties and, more than that, our King. “God of Our Fathers” asks God to “be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay, thy Word our law, thy paths our chosen way.” Is this not something we desperately need in this country, to return to God as our ultimate ruler, to guide and guard us, and for the Word of God to be our law? I hear a lot from traditionalists about how important it is that our law and culture reflect our faith and morals, yet when a hymn sets out to ask God to do just that, it is called “secular” and “out of place.”

Being patriotic and loving one’s country is not antithetical to Christian values, either. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that it is a pious thing to do. He says, “Man is a debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so it belongs to piety, in the second place, to show reverence to one’s parents and one’s country” (ST.II-II.101). The Catechism says that the fourth commandment requires “honor, affection, and gratitude” for “citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it” (CCC 2199). Therefore, it is obvious that love of country is not incompatible with Christian values and that it is actually a pious thing to do, a virtue.

Patriotic hymns, then, are perfectly Christian. They contain the elements of worship, praise, and thanksgiving. They direct our hearts and minds both to God and to our country. They give thanks to God for allowing us to be born here and to enjoy the abundance of freedoms and wealth that we have. They advance the idea that it is right and good to promote Christian values, morality, and culture in the public sphere. They reinforce the idea that America is at its best when it embraces Christianity, and they remind us that God actually should be considered in our affairs.

I assert, therefore, that it is acceptable and even commendable to include such hymns as I have already spoken of either at the beginning or end of mass (or some other worship service).


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