Religion and civil religion in two Inauguration songs

Inauguration Day and the surrounding activities can contain plenty of opportunities for analyzing religion and civil religion. As I took in some of the proceedings, two songs blurred the lines between religion and civil religion.

Photo by Philippe Bonnaire on Pexels.com

First, the performance of “Amazing Grace” after Joe Biden’s inauguration speech. This is a religious song regularly heard in many churches and congregations. On the song’s origins (with information on the song from Wikipedia):

Newton and Cowper attempted to present a poem or hymn for each prayer meeting. The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” were written in late 1772 and probably used in a prayer meeting for the first time on 1 January 1773. A collection of the poems Newton and Cowper had written for use in services at Olney was bound and published anonymously in 1779 under the title Olney Hymns. Newton contributed 280 of the 348 texts in Olney Hymns; “1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith’s Review and Expectation” was the title of the poem with the first line “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)”.

The song really took off in the United States and was adopted by a number of Christian denominations. But, this popularity extended beyond explicitly religious settings:

Following the appropriation of the hymn in secular music, “Amazing Grace” became such an icon in American culture that it has been used for a variety of secular purposes and marketing campaigns, placing it in danger of becoming a cliché. It has been mass-produced on souvenirs, lent its name to a Superman villain, appeared on The Simpsons to demonstrate the redemption of a murderous character named Sideshow Bob, incorporated into Hare Krishna chants and adapted for Wicca ceremonies. It can also be sung to the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, as Garrison Keillor has observed. The hymn has been employed in several films, including Alice’s Restaurant, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Silkwood. It is referenced in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which highlights Newton’s influence on the leading British abolitionist William Wilberforce, and in the film biography of Newton, Newton’s Grace. The 1982 science fiction film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan used “Amazing Grace” amid a context of Christian symbolism, to memorialise Mr. Spock following his death, but more practically, because the song has become “instantly recognizable to many in the audience as music that sounds appropriate for a funeral” according to a Star Trek scholar. Since 1954, when an organ instrumental of “New Britain” became a best-seller, “Amazing Grace” has been associated with funerals and memorial services. The hymn has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy, becoming a sort of “spiritual national anthem” according to authors Mary Rourke and Emily Gwathmey. For example, President Barack Obama recited and later sang the hymn at the memorial service for Clementa Pinckney, who was one of the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting in 2015…

Due to its immense popularity and iconic nature, the meaning behind the words of “Amazing Grace” has become as individual as the singer or listener. Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that the secular popularity of “Amazing Grace” is due to the absence of any mention of God in the lyrics until the fourth verse (by Excell’s version, the fourth verse begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years”), and that the song represents the ability of humanity to transform itself instead of a transformation taking place at the hands of God. “Grace”, however, had a clearer meaning to John Newton, as he used the word to represent God or the power of God.

The transformative power of the song was investigated by journalist Bill Moyers in a documentary released in 1990. Moyers was inspired to focus on the song’s power after watching a performance at Lincoln Center, where the audience consisted of Christians and non-Christians, and he noticed that it had an equal impact on everybody in attendance, unifying them. James Basker also acknowledged this force when he explained why he chose “Amazing Grace” to represent a collection of anti-slavery poetry: “there is a transformative power that is applicable … : the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature.”

A song so popular that it could be preformed in public and enjoyed by both Christian and non-Christian audiences.

Second, a song from the COVID-19 Memorial the night before the Inauguration might go the other way: from popular music – though starting with Biblical allusions – toward more religious activity.

The brief program included two songs: Amazing Grace and Hallelujah.

This quiet, devastating and hopeful memorial reminded me of the remarkable and wholly improbable journey of this song, Hallelujah, into something like a canonical song of memorial or pathos in American culture. That this should be so is actually quite odd, not least because it is not at all clear what the song, in its totality, is even about. And a number of things the song is quite clearly about … well, they are not what you’d expect in a song now treated as appropriate, uplifting and fitting for all occasions and audiences.

Mainstream or memorial versions commonly expurgate the song’s erotic imagery. But it can’t all be ironed out. This energy, rumbling rough under the simplified lyrics, gives a power and ballast even to the more sanitized versions. In any case the mixing and matching of lyrics is possible because Leonard Cohen wrote numerous different lyrics for the song. You can mix and match them and create your own version.

This song first recorded in 1984 made its way through a few singers, became widely known in the kids’ movie Shrek, has been covered by numerous artists, and was rewritten to be a Christian Christmas song.

Could these two songs help prompt a spiritual experience for listeners and performers? Music does not have to be explicitly or exclusively religious to help bring people together. Could they be heard in houses of worship, on the radio, and in political settings? Christians have a history of adopting popular music and words and plenty of church songs have entered the public consciousness. Do they address universal themes as well as hint at specific religious details? Such songs could help Americans and others link what may at times seem to be disparate realms while leaving enough room for interpretation and use that it can mean different things to different people.

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