So I got my schedule at WeownyouMart this week, and it turns out that this will be my last weekend off for quite some time. I start in the produce department at 7am next Saturday. I’ll also be working Sunday and probably most Sundays thereafter, so this means that the choir at church will be without my golden tones after tomorrow.

I’ll give you all a moment to express your collective sorrow in the manner you feel most appropriate.

Well, it turns out that my swan song with the choir will come on ‘Patriotic Sunday.’ I heard that they were going to do this via e-mail last week, and I also overheard the choir director and pianist talking about a big number where somebody sings ‘God Bless the USA’ and kids come out with flags and there isn’t a dry eye in the place.

Now, here’s the thing. I like to think that I’m as patriotic as the next guy but, because I do happen to tilt somewhat to the left, quite often the next guy doesn’t think so. I just get stuff stuck in my craw every once in a while and one of the things that’s been stuck there for the past week or so is this question:

What is the purpose of a worship service? To worship God, right? So does a song like ‘God Bless the USA’ lift up God? Or does it lift up the United States of America and just happen to mention God in passing?

And does the fact that it mentions God in passing – and in the form of a request, almost a demand – make it a song suitable for singing in a worship service? If Lee Greenwood had been a Buddhist, would we be singing ‘Buddha Bless the USA’ in church? I mean, a Fourth of July picnic or parade, sure…but in a worship service? And why not ‘God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions?’

So when I got started thinking about this I had to be honest about my real feelings about Lee Greenwood and the song. To be honest, I don’t particularly like either one, but I think the problems I have had with both have had more to do with guilt by association than anything else.

First of all, there’s Lee Greenwood. Mr. Greenwood is a former Las Vegas blackjack dealer with a nice, gritty voice who, prior to writing GBTUSA had a couple of hits in the “sighin’ and cryin’ and cheatin’” genre of country music. GBTUSA became a hit in 1984 and the song and singer were both immediately adopted by the Reagan Revolution.

Greenwood at the time seemed to express doubts about declaring a political party loyalty, but apparently he’s gotten over those initial misgivings because he has since appeared at seemingly every Republican convention and has performed in support of Reagan, both Bushes, McCain and Palin, and lots of other politicians with ‘R’ behind their name. There he is singing for the party of “family values” in spite of the fact that he’s on his fourth wife (well, the third one is actually responsible for Billy Ray Cyrus and the ‘Achy Breaky’ line dance phenomenon of the 90s, so who can blame him for kicking her to the curb?). Also, maybe this is just me, but doesn’t he look like the kind of guy that electrocutes kittens in his spare time?

But this is what’s interesting, the original video for the song depicts Greenwood as a farmer coming off his fields and gathering with family and friends to sing the song. The last shots are of Greenwood driving away with his belongings in the back of a truck, and his neighbors waving goodbye amid ‘Public Auction’ signs. He’s lost his farm. Somehow between 1984, the post 9/11 patriotic fervor and run up to the invasions (which pretty much excluded anybody who didn’t want to blow up people who wore turbans), and today the song seems to have lost its original “things may be tough, but dagnabit I’d rather be here in America than anywhere else” meaning, replaced with pure jingoism. Look at Greenwood’s first verse:

If tomorrow all the things were gone
I’d worked for all my life,
And I had to start again
with just my children and my wife,
I’d thank my lucky stars
to be living here today,
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom
and they can’t take that away.

I’m proud to be an American
where at least I know I’m free

I always wondered what the “at least I know I’m free” part what about, and seeing the video I understand it. It always sounded a bit churlish to me. It always sounded like, “Well we got all these pinkos and gays and towelheads running around, but at least I know I’m free.” But that was my misunderstanding. I don’t know that Greenwood or anybody else feels like that, Republican or Democrat. If they do, they need to take a long look in the mirror.

And I need to take a long look in the mirror, because when I have seen Greenwood sing GBTUSA at Republican Conventions in the past, wearing his red white and blue jacket, I have judged him and the song harshly. God bless the USA? Why not ask God to bless Canada, or Mexico, or Belgium? Why do we have to be so selfish? Because we live here, dummy. In Canada, Mexico, and Belgium they can ask God to bless them and their country…and they probably do.

So do we ask God to bless the USA in spite of our faults? Yes. We ask her to guide our leaders and help them to make the best decisions, whether that leader is Barack Obama or the previous guy, and if we disagree – just as many in my Southern Baptist church do with President Obama, and I did with the previous guy – we pray even harder.

So the question still remains, is it OK for me to “stand up next to you” and sing patriotic songs in a worship service? Well, at choir practice Wednesday night I found out that GBTUSA will be done tomorrow with the kids and the flags, but as a special solo; the choir will have joined the rest of the congregation by that point. Earlier in the service we will lead the congregation in a few songs like ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (didn’t know they sung that one down here), all of which are in The Baptist Hymnal. So what am I to do?

Well, I have queried a few people about this, and the best response I got was from an extremely conservative friend. She actually seemed to understand my quandary, but the question she asked was, “Of the actions you could take, which would make the biggest footprint?” If I decided to sit out the service and not sing the songs, who would it help? Who would it hurt? Would it help anybody if I sat this one out? Or would it possibly hurt the pastor, the choir director, my sister and brother-in-law – all of whom have been very kind and giving to me?

Which action would make the biggest footprint? In other words, don’t just look at this one tree; try to see the forest.

So I’ll be up there with the choir one last time tomorrow morning. I won’t be singing ‘God Bless the USA,’ but I’ll be watching it with the kids and the flags and there won’t be a dry eye in the place, including mine probably. That lump in my throat will be from both my love of country, and from swallowing my pride. But just remember, if you ever hear that a certain ultra patriotic country singer was caught electrocuting kittens, I warned you.


One thought on “God bless US, everyone?

  1. I am proud of you, Joe. Not because I am right wing, but because like you, I have a stubborn leftist side to me and I completely empathize with your dilemna. Actually you might be surprised to read the history of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. (I tagged you on my previous note on facebook)
    Really, the issue is not about being left or right, but rather being appropriate and respectful of the context. Are Americans God’s new Chosen People? Some Americans might think so. If that is true, how does one separate the spiritual act of worship from the group identity of asking a blessing? Also, does being the new Chosen People exclude by definition everybody else in the world? That is the really critical difference here, as you pointed out.
    I suspect that it is not so much a self-righteousness that says, “God only loves us”, but a fear driven self-protection that quickly associates God’s blessing with Freedom (not being under foreign invasion) and Liberty (a form of “your not the boss of me”).
    Down through the ages, the Jews were known to say, “God, choose someone else!” This is because God’s “blessing” often looks like a purifying fire. The church that has grown the most is the Chinese church. God has blessed them. If your church wants to pray for God’s blessing, I hope they know what they are asking for!

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