A (Brief) Religious History of the Star-Spangled Banner

As much as I joined most of my fellow Americans in recoiling from our president’s latest inflammatory outbursts, it’s been encouraging to see people pause and think about what’s happening when football fans, players, and coaches join together to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After all, few rituals do more to create the nation — the “imagined community” whose members are willing both to kill and to die for each other, despite having never met. As Benedict Anderson once explained:

…there is a special kind of contemporaneous community which language alone suggests — above all in the form of poetry and songs. Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing a moment of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance. Singing the MarseillaiseWaltzing Matilda, and Indonesia Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community…. How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and where we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound. (Imagined Communities, p. 149)

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Of course, I think this raises particularly pressing questions for those of us, from every nation, who name Jesus Christ as Lord. Even if we’re moving away from the problem of patriotic music being inserted into Christian worship services, the very use of the word “anthem” should remind us that there’s something worshipful about such songs, even in a secular setting. For Reformed philosopher Jamie Smith, few cultural liturgies are as powerful as singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at professional sporting events:

Like parishioners who know all the motions of the Mass by heart, these fans instinctively and automatically rise together. They remove their caps, and many place a hand over their heart as an artist or group sings a rendition of one of the world’s most affecting national anthems, laden with military themes such that those singing it are transposed into battle, the identity of the nation being wrapped up in its revolutionary beginnings and legacy of military power. Perhaps even more importantly, this rehearses and renews the myth of national identity forged by blood sacrifice. (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 105)

Smith is hardly alone in his concerns. Whatever you think about the idea of athletes protesting during this ritual, it’s worth considering that, throughout the history of our “imagined community,” some American Christians have protested the song itself.

As it happens, its author was a devout Christian. George Svejda, author of a National Park Service-commissioned history of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” described Francis Scott Key as a man of “deep piety,” whose “sincere religious convictions” show up in the lesser-known hymns he penned. (And in his most famous song itself: the rarely-sung fourth verse prays that “the Heav’n rescued land” would “Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!”) Key was a lay leader in the Episcopal Church, the only delegate “allowed to stand up in defense of evangelical truth” at that denomination’s 1820 General Convention.

Moreover, Svejda credits Thomas Carr, an organist at an Episcopal Church in Baltimore, with helping to popularize Key’s song. It began to appear in Christian hymnals as early as 1840 (according to the index of Hymnary.org), and received a boost from the Civil War. And in 1884 Prohibitionists adapted the tune for their own anthem: “The Foe of Church and Freedom.”

But “The Star-Spangled Banner” has historically been less popular (381 instances) with hymnal editors than its 19th century rivals for the national song: Samuel Francis Smith’s “America’ (1832, 1702 instances) and Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” (1893, 445 instances). When “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to gain official recognition in the first years of the 20th century, Christians were among those proposing alternative anthems. 1909’s “God Save the President” came from the pen of a Congregationalist pastor in Maine; Svejda reports that the Navy Department quickly decided that the song “completely lacked originality” — and borrowed its tune from the Russian national anthem.

Still, the U.S. had no national anthem when it entered the First World War in April 1917. And the mounting patriotism of the time prompted a popular singer named Kitty Cheatham to write a pamphlet condemning Key’s song as being “deadly in its insidious mental poison.” Why would she think this? In his history of the anthem, Marc Ferris roots her critique in religious convictions:

A devout Christian Scientist, Cheatham considered the sentiments of the song to be at odds with the spirit of Christianity and the idealism of the era, represented by President Wilson and his Progressive supporters. She argued that Americans ‘not only resist learning and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but, up to the present time, have refused to establish it as the national hymn. (Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthemp. 145)

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In the wake of World War I and the Red Scare that followed the Russian Revolution, groups like the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution made Key’s song an integral part of their “Americanization” campaigns. Ferris notes that when the state of Rhode Island celebrated Flag Day in 1924, officials added Bible quotations to pamphlets, plus a poem that paired Key’s opening line with this couplet: “Flag of peace or flag of battle! Children it is yours to love! / Will you honor and defend it, as the gift from God above?” Removing the flag from public schools, said a principal in Pawtucket, would be like taking “the cross of Christ from the Christian Church.”

But other American Christians remained staunchly opposed to the song. In 1919 a North Carolina bishop tried unsuccessfully to convince the Episcopal Church to delete “The Star-Spangled Banner” from its hymnal. Three years later, a Christian Scientist named Augusta Stetson published a series of op-eds in New York, Baltimore, and Washington newspapers urging Americans to reject the song:

Do these phrases [she particularly disliked the third verse] fittingly express the spirit of America, the nation to whom the longing world looks today for moral and spiritual leadership with Christ as the head?…

Shall that ‘carnal mind,’ which St. Paul declared was ‘enmity against God,’ and which has ever opposed the progress of enlightenment and truth, be longer alloewd to express its qualities of hate, sensuality, and bloody violence, through “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Shall such seeds be planted in the budding minds of America’s School children? God forbid!…

From the pages of America’s historic record, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is to-day being erased, by fiat of God. In its place will be revealed America’s true national anthem, written and composed by Americans, penned by Christly inspiration and illumined with spiritual light. (quoted in Svejda’s history, pp. 360-61)

Nonsense, shot back the editors of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat. The love of country inspired by the anthem, they argued, “is not an emotion of war, or of hatred toward any people. It is not in any way inimical to peace, to brotherhood or to Christian principles.”

Ferris, Star-Spangled BannerThe pacifism of the interwar era also led a Connecticut pastor to try to keep what he saw as the belligerent lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” out of a Memorial Day celebration in 1929. “With all due respect to the reverend gentleman,” a Baltimore journalist replied, rising to the defense of a song inspired by Fort McHenry, “this sounds like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel — a whole package of ’em, in fact. Two of the most famous hymns of the Church, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” have a wallop like that which put Mr. Tunney in the Social Register. The former, too, is one of the best marching tunes ever written, as thousands of ex-doughboys will testify.”

Congress passed a bill making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem in 1931, and World War II helped fix its singing as a ritual in sporting events. NFL commissioner Elmer Layden argued that “[t]he playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.” (Ferris explained yesterday to CNN that postwar patriotism was only one factor; another was that sound systems had evolved to the point that it was no longer necessary to hire a band.) But not every team followed suit: after 1945, the Chicago Cubs reverted to the pre-war tradition of saving the anthem for Opening Day and national holidays; it “shouldn’t be cheapened,” said Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, “by routine renditions in athletic arenas.” (He gave in during the Vietnam War, but the growing unpopularity of that conflict caused the Kansas City Royals to drop the anthem in mid-1972 from all but Sundays and holidays… a change that lasted all of two games.)
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And some Christians continued to argue against “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1947, The Christian Century had simply had enough of the song’s infamously difficult range: “We don’t think it matters much what is put in the place of the present national anthem. Katharine Lee Bates’ hymn, or Julia Ward Howe’s, or even a return to Samuel F. Smith’s uninspired verses—anything will be an improvement on Francis Scott Key’s unsingable ode.” Twenty years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the journal of the Hymn Society urged replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with Bates’ less bombastic hymn. “Wanted: An Uplifting National Anthem” was the headline for the piece, by the Methodist pastor and hymn writer William Watkins Reid, who had composed an international-ecumenical alternative in 1958.

Then there were those Christians who refused to sing any national anthem, whoever the author, before any sporting event. Goshen College, a flagship Mennonite institution, didn’t even permit competitive sports for decades. But even after soccer and other sports came to campus starting in the late 1950s, Goshen declined to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games, its militaristic lyrics a poor fit for an Anabaptist school historically committed to pacifism and suspicious of civil religion. In 2010, the school’s administration decided to play an instrumental version, in part as an act of hospitality for the non-Mennonites who made up a growing share of the student body. But that decision, explained one Mennonite pastor to Christianity Today readers, “caused widespread concern and confusion among the college’s students, professors, alumni, supporters and, yes, donors — many of whom felt like playing the anthem compromised the college’s Christian values.” Just a year later, Goshen president James Brenneman reversed himself, with “America the Beautiful” to be played before certain events.

Finally, in light of the past weekend’s events, it’s worth noting that even that controversial 2010 announcement emphasized that “playing the anthem opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique — if need be — as citizens in the loyal opposition on issues of deepest moral conviction, such as war, racism, and human rights abuses.”

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