Sing It Again
Nobody ever remembers the fourth verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner." They should.
12:01 AM, Oct 9, 2001 • By TERRY EASTLAND
IN MY CHURCH A WEEK AGO SUNDAY, we sang the fourth verse of the National Anthem. I wonder how many others have had the chance to sing it recently. I can't remember ever singing it before.
As we lifted our voices, I wondered what the church-state police would say if this verse ever came to be sung more widely--especially outside our churches and, horribile dictu, in government precincts. Consider the words:
O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
The first verse, which we all know by heart, contains no references to God or the nation's ostensible relationship to Him. Ditto for the relatively unknown second and third verses. But the fourth verse doesn't shy from speaking about God and country. Indeed, it tells us that God made and preserves our nation, that we must conquer when our cause is just, and that our motto is "In God is our trust." By the by, it also interprets the War of 1812 (sights of which led Francis Scott Key to write the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner") as one in which heaven (i.e., God) rescued us from the bloody British (thus taking sides in the war!), and blessed us with victory and peace.
Since singing the obscure fourth verse in church, I've asked myself why we did that, inasmuch as the verse contains not a little civil religion. Theologically, the difficulty with the verse is all too obvious. Good theology would agree that nations rise and fall in God's hands (and, thus, that He makes and preserves nations, including ours). And good theology would of course support the notion that a people should trust in God. The problem lies in that "conquer we must" business. Certainly the wars a nation fights should satisfy the criteria of just-war theory. But good theology would balk at saying we always conquer when our cause is just. It would settle for the far humbler, if less star-spangling, "we may conquer."
I'd prefer to sing the fourth verse of the national anthem--and the other verses as well--elsewhere than church. But don't get me wrong: If called upon to sing it, especially at some government-sponsored event, I'd do so loudly enough to alarm the separation patrol, who I see have not quit their culture war since the attacks on America of September 11.
In support of America in war-time, an elementary school in California recently posted a "God Bless America" sign on a marquee near its front door. The sign drew a rebuke from the ACLU, which says it sends "a hurtful, divisive message" and therefore "must be replaced immediately." With what, I wonder. "This School Has No Opinions about God, Either For Him or Against"? Civil nonreligion, you could call it.
Doubtless the fourth verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" also sends "a hurtful, divisive message." Even more, the song was made the National Anthem (in 1931) by an Act of Congress, which must make the fourth verse an unconstitutional establishment of religion. O say, can you see it? If not, let's sing that fourth verse, together one more time.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Do you remember all of the words to the National Anthem?