A great deal of controversy has arisen recently over some athletes and others who are protesting by sitting or kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem. These protesters apparently believe that they should not celebrate a country in which there are injustices. It is noteworthy, by contrast, that the civil rights leaders of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s honored the country and its anthem as a part of their reform. As Martin Luther King proclaimed in his most famous speech, his dream for a better future was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He, along with those of us now working now for the right to life, family life, religious freedom, and the rights of parents, protest current flaws in America. But we affirm strongly the essence and ideal of the country itself.
Likewise, the Roman Empire persecuted the Church, but the early Christians called not for its destruction, but rather for its conversion. As St. Justin the Martyr argued so forcefully in the second century, Christianity would bring about the best in the Empire. C.S. Lewis made a similar point near the end of his classic work of fiction That Hideous Strength. The hero of the book points out that in every nation there is the ideal to which God calls us and sins that cloud this ideal. The great struggles of human history are the competition between the glory of this ideal and the corruption that sin would bring about.
When the national anthem asks in the first verse whether we see in the new dawn what so proudly we hailed at sunset, it is asking whether we still see the Founder’s vision of a nation that defends the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness given by the Almighty God! When it asks whether the star spangled banner yet waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is asking whether American is still a land and home of a brave and free people. Will this generation wallow in self-interest and sloth, be blinded by decadence and self-interest, and let the torch of liberty die out? Or will this generation confront the challenges that are before us with self-sacrificing courage and purity of heart and make this land ever more “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?” That is the question the national anthem asks, that is the question that lies before us.