ChrisWeigant.com

Please support ChrisWeigant.com this holiday season!

Battle Hymn

[ Posted Monday, January 21st, 2013 – 22:55 PST ]

America shares a civic religion. Today was its holiest day.

Americans' love of country and love of our form of government is a secular "religion," of course, which doesn't preclude religious references from being made both by it and about it. As but one example, our nation's flag is treated as a downright sacred object by many Americans. But the most sacred of our civic rights is the peaceful transfer of power which happens every four years at the United States Capitol, when we swear in a new president. This year, of course, the new president was the old president, as Barack Obama enters that rarest of clubs in our history, as a multi-term president.

Some might object to using religious language to describe the trappings of our democracy. Some strongly object to actual religious language used by politicians in our secular nation ("so help me God" is not, in fact, part of the presidential oath of office, it is merely added at the request of the person being sworn in). Four years ago, Barack Obama made what I believe is the first mention in any presidential inauguration speech of the non-religious, when he said: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." But whatever your personal beliefs are in matters of faith, all Americans share the same feelings of awe and grandeur on certain of our civic occasions. While such things as the State Of The Union speech or a national election make us all pause a moment in our busy lives, there is nothing quite like an inauguration to display the deeply-held belief virtually every American shares in the way our government was designed.

American leaders hand over power. They lead the country for a time, and then they hand over the reins of state to another to carry on. They step down. This fact is one of the bedrock tenets of the American faith, and we have a right to be proud of it, because when it first came into the world, it was unique among the powerful nations of the time, all of whom were led by royalty. We have no divinely-inspired kings or queens, and we never will. When George Washington stepped down after two terms as president, it shocked many in the world. When the opposition party won its first election in 1800, the power of the presidency passed from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson without a revolution in the streets. The tradition this started continues today, which is why Inauguration Day is truly our most-sacred civic rite.

Whether you spend the next four years proud that you voted for the president, or complaining about the "numbskull the voters put in the White House," the day is bigger than any of us. It is bigger, in fact, than any president or any one political party. Grumbling about the "other guy" being in office is as long a tradition as the existence of America, in fact. But that doesn't mar the spectacle of the day. If it's "your guy" (or, perhaps soon, "gal") in the Oval Office, then today is a joyful day. If it's "the other guy" who won, then today can be very disappointing. But even so, the ceremony itself is respected. If you lost, then it's time to hitch up your belt and go to work to elect someone better next time around -- not to mount an insurgency or rebellion. That is what this day is all about.

I've got a lot of thoughts about today, including thoughts about President Obama's speech, but after watching eight solid hours of the festivities, I was too exhausted to write them all out. Instead, I am going to leave you with a link to a speech, and the lyrics to a song. It will have to do, for now.

Because this is the second time a president has been inaugurated on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, I did what I do every year at this time, and read the text of a speech of Dr. King's that I had not read in full before. This is a speech he gave on the steps of the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965, after leading a march there from Selma. This speech is called by some the "How Long? Not Long!" speech. Others refer to it by the closing lines of the speech, where Dr. King quotes the song lyric: "Our God is marching on!" On the day given over to Dr. King's memory, it is a speech worth reading.

The lyric is from the closing chorus to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This song was written during the Civil War, which also makes it appropriate for the day when our first black president was sworn in for the second time, on President Abraham Lincoln's Bible. The woman who wrote the lyrics heard soldiers singing the words they had put to an older tune, "John Brown's Body," and decided she could do better. She was the wife, in fact, of one of the men who had financed John Brown's anti-slavery efforts (and who had to flee to Canada when his name was linked with Brown's after his uprising in Harper's Ferry failed).

The song is religious in nature (hence the world "Hymn") and militant through and through. It's lyrics not only were quoted by Dr. King, they also gave us the title of a John Steinbeck novel in a different American crisis. Two verses were sung during today's ceremony (in a rather odd tempo, to my untrained ear), but I thought the whole song was worth ending with today. Written for Union soldiers, the fifth verse was included in today's rendition, which is a bit rare these days. It speaks directly to the fight these men faced, likening the righteousness of their cause to that of Jesus: "He died to make men holy, we will die to set them free." This has been toned down over time, and is now sometimes sung "...we will live to set them free," although today's choir hewed to the original line. Here are the original lyrics (the sixth verse was not originally published, but was written at the same time the rest of the song was, by Julia Ward Howe), which as I said seemed a fitting place to end for today:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

(Chorus)

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."

(Chorus)

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, we will die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

(Chorus)

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

24 Comments on “Battle Hymn”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Americans surely have a lot to be proud of and it was all on grande display today.

    As an outsider looking in, though, it was all rather bittersweet, especially for someone like me who is interested in how the US interacts with the rest of the world.

    Having spent the better part of the first term cleaning up the messes of years of mismanaged domestic and foreign policy, President Obama seems ready to focus on a domestic agenda to the virtual exclusion of continuing the work of restoring America's global leadership role. That, at least, is my first impression of the inaugural address today.

    If that is what the future holds, then I hope that means the US will soon be completely out of the mess that is Afghanistan. It's just not worth it anymore, if it ever was.

    As for the rest of us out in the world, I'm not sure we'll manage very well without strong US leadership, but what are we gonna do? Perhaps it's time for this outsider to turn a little more inward, too.

    Good luck to us all!

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I wish I could be as enthused as ya'all over another 4 years of Emperor Barack The First..

    But seeing the utter partisanship that was the inauguration and the promise of 4 more years of the same bitter and vile partisan attacks??

    Well, it appears that the Left has forgotten one of the most important of the Nietzsche quotes..

    "When fighting monsters, one must take care not to BECOME the monster"

    The Left has become all of the vile, deceit and disgust that they have always accused the Right of..

    On the plus side, seeing a devout Lefty interject religion into politics with such reckless abandon is a rare site to see... :D

    Michale

  3. [3] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Yes but it is exactly this: ceremony.

    Obama gave a great ceremonial speech. 'Speaker Obama' was out for all to see - indicating the policies he would like to pursue, with the courage and conviction he would like to pursue them with.

    Sadly, we all know that Speaker Obama is just a fairytale (often used by the Right) and the real President Obama is one who compromises and backs down everywhere he can, before settling on a centre-right position that isn't left enough for Democrats or bat-shit-crazy far-right enough for Republicans.

    A classic example: "We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

    We will see how well President Obama sticks to the words of Speaker Obama in the upcoming fiscal sequester negotiations...

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    "they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

    Absolutely outstanding way to put it. When I heard Obama say this I applauded.

    -David

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    first four paragraphs were so good i decided to incorporate them into my civics lesson today. thanks CW.

    ~joshua

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Hay CW,

    Check yer email.. :D

    Michale

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

    The problem is, more people are satisfied with being the takers and become risk averse...

    I mean, seriously..

    Why look for work or get a job when you can get a comfortable wage doing absolutely nothing but voting Democrat once every two years???

    Michale

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Michale,

    You have an extrememly cynical view of things. I think you would find more happiness if you could snap out of that type of thinking. I know the rest of us would. Find more happiness if you did that, I mean. :)

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    You have an extrememly cynical view of things. I think you would find more happiness if you could snap out of that type of thinking.

    It's hard to be happy, considering all the vile and disgusting partisanship going on...

    Which is actually surprising, because I am usually a cup is half full kind of guy... :D

    . I know the rest of us would. Find more happiness if you did that, I mean. :)

    Now ya know how I felt during the Bush years.. :D

    The game's the same. Only the players change.. :D

    Michale

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    You have an extrememly cynical view of things. I think you would find more happiness if you could snap out of that type of thinking.

    Apparently, I am not alone in "that type of thinking"... :D

    Gallup: American Optimism Hits Lowest Point Since Carter Administration
    http://washington.cbslocal.com/2013/01/22/gallup-american-optimism-hits-lowest-point-since-carter-administration/

    Michale

  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    On gay rights, the president had declared that the nation's journey is "not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

    But Carney said the president was speaking about his personal views and would not take federal action on same-sex marriage, which he continues to see as a state issue.
    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_OBAMA?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2013-01-22-17-39-22

    As much as it pains me to say (not really :D), I think Michty called this one..

    The more things change, they more they stay the same...

    Michale.....

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    The problem is that practically the entire Left has elevated Obama to god/king status when, in fact, Obama embodies the worst of the worst politicians..

    Michale

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Michale,

    Oh, you are definitely not alone in that type of thinking. Not by a long shot.

    Misery must indeed love company.

    Have a nice day!

  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Michale,

    It's hard to be happy, considering all the vile and disgusting partisanship going on...

    Well, you could, all by yourself, choose to put the lid on a good deal of the gratuitous partisanship we have to put up with around here.

    We would be grateful. :)

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:

    Well, you could, all by yourself, choose to put the lid on a good deal of the gratuitous partisanship we have to put up with around here.

    We would be grateful. :)

    Tell ya what, Liz..

    I'll ONLY make gratuitous partisan comments slamming the Left IN RESPONSE to gratuitous partisan comments that slam the Right..

    How could it POSSIBLY be more fair than that??? :D

    Michale

  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Michale,

    That sounds quite fair to me.

    I expect our exchanges from here on out to be quite pleasurable.

  17. [17] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM [1] -

    I think it's more of two things in concert: (1) Americans are tired of foreign policy after over a decade of war, and (2) most presidents try to get domestic policy initiatives in their second term, to cement their legacy.

    But, often, foreign policy has a way of rearing its head and forcing second-termers to deal with it. Which will likely happen, at some point in the next four years.

    -CW

  18. [18] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [2] -

    I tend to avoid mixing religion and politics in general, because it is such an explosive mix. But it's hard to read those lyrics and avoid the subject entirely. I mean, it is a "hymn" after all.

    -CW

  19. [19] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    michty6 -

    I understand your skepticism. But I think Obama 2.0 has rebooted, somewhat. I mean, who got more of their bargaining position in the fiscal cliff deal? I'd rate it about 85% to 15%, Obama over the GOP. At the end of the speech, Obama admitted he's never going to get "perfect" legislation, but I think his negotiating tactics have gotten demonstrably better than, say, the health care arguing era.

    He doesn't immediately give away half the store in his opening negotiating move, whereas he used to. He sticks to "lines in the sand" a lot better than he used to. And his stronger stance has shaken up the GOP.

    While the budget will doubtlessly have compromises in it, I look more to the immigration proposals. Dems demanded a path to citizenship, and they (so far) have gotten it. The GOP isn't getting much of anything they want in the bill.

    We'll see, we'll see... but I still say he's doing better on the negotiating front, than, say, the summer of 2010.

    -CW

  20. [20] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian [4] -

    The line I jumped up and applauded was the one about "we cannot have people standing in line for hours to vote" -- I watched the speech three times during the week, and every time, that line got me to yell "damn right!"

    :-)

    -CW

  21. [21] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 [5] -

    Any time I can help out a teacher with a lesson plan, I know I've done some good in the world.

    :-)

    Thanks for the kind words.

    -CW

  22. [22] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [6] -

    Dang, that's another thing I'm falling behind on. OK, OK, tonight, I promise.

    -CW

  23. [23] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Chris[17]

    Oh, that was just me having a weak moment and foolishly putting in on public display. It won't happen again.

  24. [24] 
    Michale wrote:

    Dang, that's another thing I'm falling behind on. OK, OK, tonight, I promise.

    It's a moot point anyways.. :D

    Michale

Comments for this article are closed.
[Powered by WordPress]