By the dawn’s early light

What a day! What a night!

Early this morning, these words come to mind:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

I watched o’er the ramparts for about twelve hours yesterday. I watched until enough senators had said something sufficiently close to the right thing that I was sure that the flag would still be there in the morning.

There were memorable speeches, for good and for ill.

We saw “leaders” who had been craven or cynical collaborators or cowards for many months standing up to posture as steadfast heroes, and I welcomed even their words. They should not expect thanks or praise from us or anyone. Any among them who know the scriptures will hopefully be hearing these words ringing in their ears: “We are unprofitable servants: we have [finally, at the last possible moment] done that which was our duty to do.”

And we heard the weak or loud “aye” of several who saw fit to affirm their abiding commitment to untruth. Again, in words from scripture: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still.”

But we also heard consistent truthtellers telling the truth once again. Only one of them was Republican, and his words were particularly incisive:

We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States.

This was Senator Mitt Romney. He also delivered the most memorable single sentence of the evening:

The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.

Because in this critical moment, enough of them—cynics, cowards, and more or less consistent truthtellers—did the right thing, by this dawn’s early light the flag is still there, and the rest of us are called to be free and brave.

I am aware of problematic features of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—in the history of its composition, in the history of its reception, and in its words. On most days I would tell you that I would rather sing “America the Beautiful”—though some of its words are also deeply problematic unless we frankly acknowledge them to be at best aspirational.

But until Congress decides otherwise, our national anthem is what it is, and as with all canonical texts, the problems it poses must be dealt with not by rejection or redaction but through interpretation. We affirm the words while hearing in them a better story than other stories that have been associated with them either in the history of their composition or the history of their reception.

So allow me to allegorize: I love my country dearly. But ultimately I can have no transcendent concern for a rectangle divided into stripes and decorated with stars. If I rejoice to see the banner still flying this morning, yes, I am profoundly grateful for the preservation for another day of our constitutional system of government in the United States, but just as the psalmist and the prophet hear the G-d who according to Moses commanded observation of feasts and sacrifices saying “If I were hungry I would not tell you” and “I despise your sacred feasts,” so also I believe I honor the spirit of my country when I say that if I wanted to see pretty colors and shapes I could find something more inspiring than a rectangular arrangement of red, white, and blue stripes and stars. The banner that I rejoice to see flying this morning is:


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