An Anthem with a Question
Have you noticed that our national anthem asks a question?
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
That wasn’t a rhetorical question for Francis Scott Key on September 14, 1814, as he watched for the sun to rise over Fort McHenry. It was up for grabs as to whether he would see the “Union Jack” or the “broad stripes and bright stars” that were “so gallantly streaming” the night before. Would the nation the flag represented endure? A glimpse amid “the rockets’ red glare [and] bombs bursting in air” gave him “proof that our flag [and all that it represented] was still there.”
No matter how loudly we cheer when the soloist hits that high note on the last line, the anthem still ends with a question mark.
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The Persistent Question
That persistent question has always been with us.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Dr. James McHenry asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got–a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln reminded us that this nation was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Civil War was “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
At the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He declared:
“We have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
It has never been a rhetorical question. It confronts every generation with fierce urgency. Will the ideals and promise the flag represents endure? “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”
The Fierce Urgency of Now
Many of us approach this 4th of July feeling the “fierce urgency of now.” I feel more deeply than ever both the promise that the flag represents and Franklin’s warning: “If you can keep it.”
I’ve been humming the old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side.
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight;
And the choice goes by forever,
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
The lines come from “The Present Crisis” a powerful poem by abolitionist, James Russell Lowell. I think it’s left out of newer hymnals because of the gender-exclusive language and because the choice between good and evil doesn’t just come “once” and then “goes by forever.” It comes with disturbing regularity.
I try to avoid binary decisions; the boundary between “the good or evil side” is seldom as clearly defined as our polarized culture likes to make it. But I’ve become convinced that now is one of those decisive moments when we as individuals and as a nation are “in the strife of truth and falsehood” when we must choose “the good or evil side.” Will we choose the truth that was declared in the Bill of Rights and given form in the Constitution on one side or Donald Trump and all that he represents on the other?
There are things we knew about this man before he became our President: his consistent dishonesty, crass vulgarity, sexual immorality, pathetic narcissism, ugly racism, financial greed, and appalling ignorance of our government and history. We were prepared for his denial of the environmental crisis, his cruelty toward marginalized people, and his relentless hostility to the freedom of the press.
But I did not expect the way he would disrespect and try to undermine the Constitution he vowed to uphold.
I could not have anticipated the humanitarian disaster on our Southern border or in Homestead, Florida.
I was not prepared to watch the President of the United States treat our long-time democratic allies with distain while choosing ruthless dictators as his friends.
I did not expect to see the President joke with Putin about Russia’s disruption of the democratic process, beam in the presence of a Saudi prince who, according to our intelligence agencies, is responsible for the murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post journalist, or consider it an honor to be friends with the North Korean dictator who returned Otto Warmbier to the U.S. in a vegetative state.
Living “in the strife of truth with falsehood” this may be the moment when we are forced to decide.
But it’s not just about Trump. In an insightful analysis of where we are today, Thomas Friedman declared, “The Biggest Threat to America Is Us.”
Only we can take ourselves down…Only we can ensure that the American dream — the core promise we’ve made to ourselves that each generation will do better than its parents — is not fulfilled.
In this and every generation, the question continues to haunt us: Will a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”
O Long May It Wave!
With Francis Scott Key, I still have hope! The second verse of Key’s poem answers the question with a resounding affirmation:
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Across our history, when the mists have seemed deep, in times when we have failed to live up to the Founders’ vision, we have caught a glimpse of the highest hopes and strongest ideals the flag represents. My hope and prayer is that in this “moment to decide,” we will once again “catch the gleam” and rise up to the high calling that was declared on this day in 1776.
Long may it wave!