At a “Celebrate Freedom Rally,” at the Kennedy Center in D.C. earlier this week, the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir premiered a new song. It’s called “Make America Great Again,” and it riffs off the campaign slogan of America’s 45th president. You can watch the song here, and you can see in front of the choristers a lectern with the presidential seal. POTUS himself would soon take the stage. But first, a secular hymn. “Like the mighty eagle that is rising on the wind,” the lyrics begin,
Soaring t’ward our destiny
Hearts and voices blend
With a mighty melody oh let the song begin
And make America great again
Make America great again
For a song that refers to itself as a “mighty melody,” it’s about what you’d expect: a florid piece of music, full of bombast and clanging cymbals. The Independent, a British newspaper, said that the production “has a strong North Korean vibe.” That may be overstating it, since the lyrics are more anodyne than jingoistic. But still, what are we supposed to do with a song like this? Will it join the great tradition of martial American songs that paint the aspirations of our nation as pre-blessed by an omnipotent and Americanized creator (cf. Battle Hymn of the Republic)? Or, as seems more likely, will it fade from our collective memory sooner than the swine flu hysteria?
For those of us with slightly longer memories, though, the Trump song (and the mild furor it generated in the media) recall to mind a moment in 2009 when a video released online showed students at an elementary school in New Jersey singing the praises of another brand-new American president, Barack Obama. Law professor Eugene Volokh summarized it at the time:
Video of the students at the Burlington, N.J., school shows them singing songs seemingly overflowing with campaign slogans and praise for “Barack Hussein Obama,” repeatedly chanting the president’s name and celebrating his accomplishments, including his “great plans” to “make this country’s economy No. 1 again.”
One song that the children were taught quotes directly from the spiritual “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” though Jesus’ name is replaced with Obama’s: “He said red, yellow, black or white/All are equal in his sight. Barack Hussein Obama.”
It is deeply ironic that the Baptists of Dallas and the teachers in New Jersey, writing very different songs in very different contexts, chose one common theme: “Make America Great Again” one the one hand, “great plans” to “make this country’s economy No. 1 again” on the other.
There was, understandably, more outrage about the school children singing Obama’s praises than there has been about the Trump song. For one thing, teachers at a public school getting their young charges to sing about Obama’s greatness is a little more Hitler Youth than a private church choir hymning Trump’s campaign message (but never the man himself), even if it took place at a rally in DC with the president himself presumably in attendance.
But the basic idea of these songs is astonishingly similar. Both songs attribute quasi-religious significance to a secular leader, or his agenda, and both promise to restore America to (very different) imagined visions of former greatness. This is a trope in nationalist music over time, and it can be powerful and affecting: it is the reason nationalism is really the only political movement with good songs. This, as an aside, is why La Marseillase, the national song of the French Republic, is so much better than L’Internationale, the tedious anthem of socialism/communism worldwide.
But we’ve only looked at bad examples so far. It’s time to look at a much more “successful” nationalist song, one that brought millions out to march for the Fatherland. In the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the official anthem of the Nazi Party, the English lyrics read (in part):
The day of freedom and of bread dawns!
For the last time, the call to arms is sounded!
For the fight, we all stand prepared!
Already Hitler’s banners fly over all streets.
The time of bondage will last but a little while now!
The time of bondage will last but a little while, and after that the day of freedom and of bread will dawn! Germany will be great/No. 1 again–Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt!
First Baptist of Dallas and the New Jersey school teachers have nothing particular in common with the Nazis, except for the ability to write secular hymns of nationalistic fervor focusing on the greatness that a leader or set of policies will restore to a nation that has lost the plot. In other words, they share a quasi-religious restorative civic nationalism.
Christians know to be wary of messages like this, wherever we find them. Pride in one’s nation is one thing, that is called patriotism. Nationalism, for our purposes here, is more than that: it is a blinkered allegiance to “my country, right or wrong.” Or a more nuanced version, “my country may be flawed, but it’s always less flawed, or more Godly and just than any other.” This Christians should recognize as idolatry.
It is the 4th of July, a day in which we rightly celebrate our nation and are thankful for the blessing of living in it. A problem only arises for when our celebration of the fatherland (the patria in patriotism) gets mixed in with the nationalist fervor of Make America Great Again or the Horst-Wessel-Lied or the Barack Obama song. History has taught us that this religious-nationalism is an idolatrous and bloodthirsty idea and that it makes monsters or Nazis of its adherents. Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer if you have any doubts about that.
So our challenge today, as Americans who serve Christ the King, is to celebrate our country without venerating it. To be thankful for good leaders without putting statues of them in our churches and bowing the knee. To be faithful citizens of our nation while recognizing that our true citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.
In an eschatological sense we are, in fact, “soaring t’ward our destiny,” and we have no doubt that “the day of freedom and of bread” will dawn. But it will not be any nation that brings these things to pass. At a certain moment, at a certain twinkling of an eye, we will hear the sound of a trumpet, “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” (Mk. 13:26 KJV) He will come to judge the earth, and the nationalists and all who trust in any other Name will realize how vain was their hope. “Let the whole earth tremble before the LORD.” (Ps. 33:8a HCSB)