The Truth is Marching On
A few poignant lines from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
I wouldn’t consider myself the most outwardly patriotic person in the world.
Some years ago, I found myself at the grocery store before Independence Day, wondering why there were so many American flags and why everyone was dressed in red, white, and blue (while I was dressed in my usual black, navy, and gray). Even though I had spent most of the afternoon writing patriotic marketing copy for work, I somehow had forgotten the holiday.
I have friends and family who take all of this much more seriously: My best friend cries whenever she sees a bald eagle; my parents proudly display both my grandfathers’ military awards in their house; and I have a legion of friends who feel a deep contempt for the image America projects. Truthfully, while I have sympathized with the latter perspective, I never found a “home” in the patriotic landscape.
Over the last two years, however, my ideas of what it means to be an American and participate in the American experience have changed profoundly. If you had asked me during the 2020 election if I thought it was okay for Twitter to ban people from its platform, I would have unequivocally said yes. Today, that perspective makes me uneasy.
Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself in the works of bold thinkers and writers like Bari Weiss, Tara Henley, and Jonathan Haidt (among many others). I’ve begun to see the flaws—and frankly, cowardice—of my former way of thinking. The liberal principles of freedom of thought, expression, and speech are deeply embedded in our American cultural DNA and are worth fighting for—these freedoms aren’t given so liberally in many parts of the world.
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The wisdom of the prophets
I recently read the story of the prophet Elijah who challenged the people of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to decide between worshipping Baal or the God of Israel. These people were paralyzed by the decision between worshipping the God of Israel—who demanded much but gave liberally—or Baal, who asked very little and bestowed tokens of worldly status in return.
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.
I feel much of our political discourse follows this model. For a long time, I felt it was my job to hold the peace by never officially taking a side. I could never be hated if I never officially offended anyone. But fighting for truth requires people to be brave, step forward, and pick a side—even if it means you risk getting burned at the stake. This is a constant challenge for me.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
The Battle Hymn of the Republic is my favorite patriotic song. The poet, Julia Ward Howe1, was visiting Washington DC in 1861 when she heard the tune to a song called “John Brown’s Body” in honor of a famous abolitionist. The following poem—which later replaced the words to the music—came to her mind:
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. 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. 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, let us live to make men free, While God is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on. — Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910
Howe’s words took dead aim at the evils of slavery and inflamed many in the south by insinuating that abolition of the practice was God’s will. She called this work a hymn, after all. She made a bold yet truthful claim, she took a side, and not everyone liked her for it.2
I sang this hymn in church yesterday, and the words “He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat. Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer him; be jubilant my feet!” was the reminder I needed to be bold and take a side—even when it makes me unpopular.3
The hope America represents
I’ve been working on an article (which is perpetually in my drafts) about the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—I’ll give you a preview here. He fled Russia right after Lenin overtook the government. He worried about the effect the censorship would have on his career. He also did not trust the prospect of raising his family in Russia after seeing so many great minds leave. Luckily, he got an invitation to perform in Sweden. By that same stroke of luck, he also managed to get visas to take his family. They stuffed everything they could fit into suitcases without alerting suspicion to the fact they were fleeing. They lived as refugees for some time.4
Eventually, he and his family made their way to the United States, where he lived out the rest of his life. He longed for his homeland—as evidenced by much of his music and the fact it took him years to finally cut ties with Russia and become a citizen. He was nevertheless grateful for his new home. He felt a sense of appreciation from his audiences and was pleased with the quality of the artists in America. In many ways, the United States represented the future.
I wanted to leave you with his arrangement of the National Anthem. Happy Independence Day.
Howe’s original words appeared in none other than The Atlantic Magazine:
Howe, Julia Ward. 1862. “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Atlantic. February 1, 1862. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/02/battle-hymn-of-the-republic/627861/.
Sometimes, it’s worth listening to unpopular thinkers—they are often ahead of their time.
Paikova, Valeria. 2021. “10 KEY Facts about Russian Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.” Russia Beyond. November 4, 2021. https://www.rbth.com/arts/334377-sergei-rachmaninoff-russian-composer.