O Say Can You See? Well, Can You?

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. Galatians 5:13

If you follow me at all you know that my unofficial tagline is: a faith that struggles with questions is always stronger than one that never asks any.

Did you realize that our national anthem—the one that’s so hard to sing—ends in a question?

According to Loras John Schissel, a music specialist at the Library of Congress, it’s the only one in the world that does.

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

We sing it as if it’s a declarative statement. But it’s not. It’s a question. One that we need to keep asking.

“I think that’s so appropriate for this big thing we call the experiment in Democracy,” Schissel 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.”

Right now, American isn’t, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves has never been the land of the free. Not for everyone.

For the first time in our lifetimes, white women are discovering what it’s like to not feel free, but our BIPOC and LGBTQ kindred have known what that’s like for years.

Not free to walk or drive while Black without fear of being, at best, feared and, at worst, killed.

Not free to exist as someone with Asian heritage for fear of being targeted by violence.

Not free until recently to marry the person you love most in the world and currently not free to rest in the knowledge that such freedom might be in question.

Not free to live as your authentic self if you were assigned a different gender at birth than the one you identify as.  

Not free to exercise the right to vote unless you’re able to take off work and stand in line for seven hours or more.

Not free to access healthcare, which has become a privilege, rather than a human right in our country.

I could go on, but at some point, it begins to feel the same as doomscrolling through social media.

I think I’ve made my point.

Land of the free? I’m pretty sure I can’t answer that part of the question in the affirmative. I’m pretty sure you can’t either—if you’re being honest.

But home of the brave. Yeah, we got that. Of course, we have those who serve in our armed forces. I am no supporter of war, but I always support the troops. Because if they weren’t the troops, I might have to be. And I’d make lousy troops*. I do wish our feverishly patriotic country would do better by our troops and our veterans. The most recent data (2019) shows that 22,000 active duty troops qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps). Many of our troops return home in needs of services that our broken system does not provide. We’re really good at cheering for our military service men and women. Not so great at pushing for changes to better support them.  

But beyond the brave troops, there are and always have been brave people in this country we call home.

  • Abolitionists who fought to end slavery and ran the Underground Railroad while the fight was going on
  • Women who demanded the right to vote
  • The pioneers of the Civil Rights movement and those who continue to lead the charge
  • A black trans woman and crew who started the modern-day fight for LGBTQ rights

Over the Fourth of July weekend, the Star Spangled Banner will be played in spaces and places all over the country, 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 use our beloved freedom to serve one another. 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!

*with props to Mike Birbiglia

Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow me on Facebook , Instagram and YouTube. You can also follow on TikTok. Get emails to keep up with all that is happening.

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