Political scientist Dominic Tierney explores the cultural and religious meanings and values behind the familiar American song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Some of his thoughts on the song:
But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. Based on ideas from my new book, How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War, we can see how the nation’s experience is intimately connected to this crusader’s cry…
The totemic poem has guided the United States through many military trials. The “Battle Hymn” epitomizes the strengths of this nation: its optimism, and its moral courage. It’s a song of agency, of action, a call to sacrifice together for the cause. The soldiers who march to the “Battle Hymn” have helped to liberate millions.
But there is a dark side to the “Battle Hymn” and the American way of war. The righteous zeal of America’s war effort can excuse almost any sins—like killing hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians. When Americans loose the fateful lightning, they have no moral guilt, for they are the tools of God.
This is a fascinating topic, particularly considering that the song came out of the Northern side of the Civil War but seems to have later been adopted by a majority of Americans. A song like this does reflect the American narrative, the story that we tell about ourselves over the years and also helps interpret our current situation.
And yet, I feel like I have rarely heard this song in recent years – the more common American hymn is “America, the Beautiful” which seems to adopt a very different tone, particularly in its first verse which opens with images of nature though its later verses pick up on some of the same themes. What explains a shift away from “The Battle Hymn,” if this has indeed happened? What happens or changes when “The Battle Hymn” is used in settings that have less to do with war – would other songs be preferred then or are there causes today that could or would utilize this song and its messages?