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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Our textbook explains how patriotism and religion have together shaped American civic culture. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," approaching its 150th anniversary, exemplifies this theme.
In The Atlantic, Professor Dominic Tierney of Swarthmore College writes:
"Battle Hymn" is not just a thread woven into the national fabric. And it's not just a consecrated text that we reach for in times of trauma. It's also a mirror on the United States. The words of the "Battle Hymn" capture something deep in the American experience of war. For 150 years, Americans have seen military campaigns as a righteous quest to smite tyrants and spread freedom. The "Battle Hymn" is our way of war; the "Battle Hymn" is how we fight.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

In the "Battle Hymn," there is no separation of church and state. The United States is a divine vessel propelled on the rough seas by the breath of God. Indeed, the nation's wars have often been imbued with providential fire. Americans on both sides of the Civil War came to see the struggle as a holy war, with Christ and his armies arrayed against the Beast. One Pennsylvanian soldier wrote: "every day I have a more religious feeling, that this war is a crusade for the good of mankind."

Half a century later, in World War I, Woodrow Wilson saw the United States as an apostle destined to shepherd the less enlightened nations. Faith in a divinely inspired quest helped draw a president who was profoundly opposed to armaments and killing into the European apocalypse. Reverend Randolph McKim preached: "It is God who has summoned us to this war. It is his war we are fighting...This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history—the holiest."

When we think of the hymn, we typically think of large military bands. But schoolchildren sing it, too: