Our Beloved National Anthem Ends with a Question We Should Keep Asking

“It’s the only national anthem that exists that ends [as usually sung] in a question mark,” according to Loras John Schissel, a music specialist at the Library of Congress, long the center of anthem scholarship.

“I think that’s so appropriate for this big thing we call the experiment in Democracy,” he said. “Because it’s always unfinished. It’s always a day-to-day contribution that we all make to make sure that it goes on, that it’s a success.”

“The way Key writes the poem . . . he’s asking: ‘Is the flag still flying? Are we still a country? Did the British kick our butts? Are we still in existence?’ ” Schissel said. (from 2014 Washington Post article)

The Question 

Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On this 4th of July, when children are separated from their families and stuck in cages, when people seeking asylum are arrested as criminals and fear of “the other” seems to be a driving force in American politics, we may have trouble giving an affirmative answer to the question of whether or not the flag still waves o’er there land of the free and the home of the brave. There seems to be less and less freedom and bravery to go around.  And the “unalienable” rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness declared in the document whose anniversary we celebrate today  are becoming more alien indeed to many of our people.

Whether we are on our feet or take a knee, whether our hand is over our heart or in our pocket, when we sing our national anthem, we need to be serious about the question it seeks. Because our democracy is a continuous experiment. One, as Schissel points out, that we all must contribute to day in and day out if it is indeed to be a success.

On this Independence Day, may we renew our commitment to participating in our democracy, actively engaging in our local politics, working to elect people to our school boards and state legislatures who support the values we hold dear. May we never fail to vote and encourage and enable others to do so as well. Let us continue to work on the experiment in democracy that is the United States of America, so that when we sing our national song, we can answer its final question with a resounding YES!

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