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President George W. Bush puts his arm around S...

President George W. Bush puts his arm around Singer Bebe Winans as he sings ‘God Bless America’ during the ‘Saluting Those Who Serve’ event at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2005. Also pictured are, from left, Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney, and Vice President Dick Cheney. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday morning I read a headline that said, “School Removes ‘God’ from ‘God Bless the USA.’” The article explained that the school taught the children to sing, “We love the USA” instead. This news is quite disturbing to me.

It troubles me on several fronts.

For starters, I know that schools modify songs all the time for various reasons. They may use the catchy tune of some popular song and write new words in order to teach science or history or other material. This practice reminds me of the Salvation Army story about its founder who wrote hymns to be sung to popular tunes. He said “The devil shouldn’t have all the good tunes.” It is easier to teach someone the words to a new song if the melody is already familiar. The idea that the school would use a familiar melody and sing different words is not a shock to me.

It does shock me that the school would take a song with the iconic status of “God Bless the USA” and change only the words that are the backbone of the song. The reason the song has the status it has is the very message the school removed. People appreciate the message that we should pray for our country. People sing this song enthusiastically because they believe what it says. They love their country, and they love singing this prayer.

There is no requirement that the school use this particular song for any particular purpose. For the school to gut the message by removing the word ‘God’ in this way sends two destructive messages to me:

  1. 1.      The teachers who made this change are telling children that they don’t think the children should acknowledge God, and
  2. 2.      The teachers are telling the children that teachers can do anything they like with cherished patriotic expressions.

This action is yet another statement that our culture is becoming secularized. We must face this reality without flinching, and without whining.  We must recognize the change that has happened and is happening. We must continue to be salt and light in the name of Christ no matter how energetically the culture rejects the salt and covers up the light. Our response to this outrage must be expressed with serpentine wisdom coupled with the grace of doves bearing olive branches.

There are many patriotic songs children could learn to sing. If they are going to sing this one, they ought to sing it as it is. If the school wants a patriotic song with no reference to God, let the teachers find a different song or write one themselves. To modify some silly ‘flavor of the day’ popular song in order to teach children something or to have some fun is fine. To modify a song that evokes in many citizens the same response as the sight of the Statue of Liberty is a slap in the face of the whole nation.

We need to remember that this song is not a song that we normally use in Christian worship. Those who modified it would tell us to quit complaining, because this is a popular song, not a hymn. It was written to arouse patriotism and commitment to the USA, not to God. However, the very wording of the song expresses faith in God and expresses an attitude that people approved as a cultural expression for most of my life. Only recently has it been common to hear anyone complain about asking God to bless our nation or participate in assuring its well-being. During the past three years, however, there has been an escalation of rhetoric demanding that the word ‘God’ and all other evidence of faith in God be expunged from public life. Until recently, most people in our culture nominally acknowledged the existence of God and considered the Christian faith, but no particular denomination, to be a normal and obvious component of the community. Currently, there is a growing sense that many people in the culture take offense at the mention of God in public and at the assumption that the Christian God is the one named when that word is used.

This developing trend is expressed in a desire that children sing patriotic songs whose lyrics are not a prayer to God. While I deplore that attitude, I would not be upset at children singing some patriotic song that did not include God’s name. However, it isn’t a neutral act to gut “God Bless America” and strip out the message that is so important to the songwriter that he used it for the title. It is an act of aggression against Christianity to do this. The people who changed the song sliced it up like a potato, boiled it, and mashed it, serving up a glob of words and notes that is completely secular. They have a right to a secular song and a secular message. I don’t think they have a right to trash a patriot’s expression of the way his faith is integrated with his patriotism. The author, Lee Greenwood said, “The most important word in the whole piece of music is the word God, which is also in the title God Bless The USA.”

The fact that the school butchered this song in this way is strong evidence of the more troubling truth that children in public schools are immersed in secularism much stronger than even the cultural secularism. Increasingly, the culture within the boundaries of school property filters and shuts out all Christian references and the expression of Christian faith.

When the Catholic Bishops protested that the federal government had overstepped its bounds in requiring the Catholic Church to pay for and encourage use of contraceptives, abortion and sterilization services, many people in the culture were angry at the bishops, not the government. The culture said with a loud voice that the Catholics had no right to opt out of the cultural standard that said that preventing or ending unwanted pregnancy is a national imperative. The religious principles of the Catholics were rejected and trashed. In Massachusetts at Stall Brook Elementary School, the religious principles of Lee Greenwood were rejected and trashed.

It is all very well for the culture to choose to be completely secular. God created people free, and he lovingly allows them to be free to reject him completely if that is their choice. It is not very well for the culture to choose to crush people for whom their faith is their way of life. I seem to recall reading that Buddhism was quite popular among people who don’t want to worship God, because they were told that it was a way of life, not a religion. I submit that the distinction expressed is only semantic. The real truth is that your way of life is your religion. You live by the principles that express your values, and your values come from somewhere. For Christians, our values come from God. We cannot live as if he does not exist. As the secular culture exerts increasing pressure to push God out of public life, the Christian way of life will inevitably be stressed. The slaughter of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA” foreshadows things yet to come. We will need to be very assertive, and very loving and prayerful, to counterbalance that momentum by living our faith, the faith that teaches us to love and pray for those who treat us spitefully.