President Barack Obama affirms ‘America, the Beautiful’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 21, 2009 

“We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” —U.S. President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address.

The quintessential American patriotic hymn has to be “America, the Beautiful.” Yes, there are other notable numbers, such as “America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and of course, the U.S. National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But it is “America, the Beautiful” that especially evokes tears of warm feelings from Americans and America’s fans around the world.

It seems it has also become the signature theme for Barack Obama, just sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Only days before his inauguration, President Obama made a historic train trip from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., retracing the pre-inauguration journey of his hero, Abraham Lincoln. Over countless speakers the world could hear Ray Charles’ rendition of “America, the Beautiful,” with its liberating emphasis on a nation of heroes who loved country more than self “and mercy more than life.”

Then there was that amazing moment at the close of last Sunday’s “We Are One” inauguration celebration at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. Beyoncé led the stageful of celebrities and the gathered throng in joining Barack and Michelle Obama in the most powerful singing of this song I’ve ever witnessed.

It certainly evoked emotions from deep within me. I attended elementary school in Buffalo, N.Y. The frequent singing of “America, the Beautiful” was a formative part of my education. I don’t think I’d realized just how much it had shaped me, however, till many years later when, as Canadians, my family and I paid a visit to Disneyland, where we stood within the Circle-Vision 360-degree theatre and viewed images of the American landscape set to this patriotic song. When the lights came up, there wasn’t a dry eye throughout the theatre, including our own.

With all this in mind, I contacted four of our coffee companions – two American, two Canadian – who have been enthusiastic supporters of Obama’s ascent to the presidency. I asked them what occurred to them as they associated the words of “America, the Beautiful” with the new president. Here’s how they responded:

Denise Coleman, international relations expert from Houston, Texas, while not indifferent to the racism of earlier times, saw a new day. “The history of America the beautiful shows that the wrongs of the past and the harm inflicted can be corrected with the passage of time and acquisition of knowledge,” she wrote. “As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.’” 

Waiparous coffee companion Hugh Pepper, Deputy Reeve for the Municipal District of Bighorn and retired educator, sees President Obama’s emergence as an event that “signifies a beginning which has the promise to reinvigorate our entire culture.” In the broader vision of “America, the Beautiful,” there will be “a new spirit of sharing which will enliven our relationships, not just within our own tribes, but everywhere.”

Local bard David Lertzman, Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development at the University of Calgary, sees in President Obama a call to a more beautiful basis for unity among all peoples. The brotherhood – the humanhood – spoken of carries “the idea that we can be united in a rainbow of expressions – not just the colour of our skin, but the beauty that embraces all diversity.”

David’s wife, Sarah, an American from Washington State, agrees. “America, indeed, is having God’s grace shed on it by bringing such a leader as this into the presidency,” she said. “And we really are crowned with the grace and humility of true brotherhood.”

In his inaugural address, President Obama reaffirmed his faith in this brotherhood.

“On this day,” the first African-American president of the United States declared, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Of the diverse ethnic and religious makeup of his country, he said, “Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.” Referring to America’s dark history of segregation, he said, “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds will someday pass, that the lines of tribes will soon dissolve, that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

In the spirit of those words, then, I’ll conclude with the prayer for our good neighbour to the south drawn from the closing lines to “America, the Beautiful”:

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page