When it comes to the hymns sung at Mass for the celebration of America’s Independence Day, some Catholics may feel considerable discomfort. In many places, of course, this pain is mitigated by priests who are not afraid to preach that Catholics today must adopt an attitude toward patriotism and the State which would have been far more familiar to Christians in the Roman Empire than it was to our parents or grandparents in America in the 1940s.

Even in that wartime period the strong cultural unity between Church and State in America tended to be overrated. In any case, the day when both the American flag and the Papal flag were displayed inside our churches is now long and appropriately gone. In fact, in most places today, I expect the Catholic discomfort with the emotional identification of Church with Country lies primarily in the traditional hymns sung at Masses on July 4th.

For example, America (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”) rattles on about our “sweet land of liberty” without any suggestion that the nature of Christian liberty is even remotely understood. This is part of a traditional (and secular) American mythology. Moreover, the identification of America as the “Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” jars anyone with a Catholic understanding of either Divine Revelation or human religious history. Other verses refer to “sweet freedom’s song” and even “freedom’s holy light”, when the context is clearly political rather than spiritual. Indeed, we must sing “Let freedom ring!” more in accordance with American mythology than with a true understanding of St. Paul’s crucial comment on freedom from sin: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

America the Beautiful does a much better job with such themes, of course, and surely it ought to be our national anthem. When it refers to “pilgrim” feet, it is not making a sectarian religious statement. Yet again, the idea that the pioneers beat “a thoroughfare for freedom…across the wilderness” is a gross exaggeration, and is not purposefully true at all in any Christian sense. So even here, we have something of that Protestant “city on a hill” rhetoric which misunderstands the meaning of Scripture in these matters. Still, this hymn is genuinely redeemed by its recognition that whatever America is, it is not yet perfect: The words pray that God will give America grace and “crown thy good with brotherhood”; that God will mend America’s flaws and “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” So we may give America the Beautiful a pass, and sing it well….

From Catholic Culture