Still Marching On

Review: 'A Fiery Gospel' by Richard M. Gamble

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Nationalism used to be the norm in American politics. It powered the northern effort to reunify the country and end slavery with a war that came to define the country. Since the United States was much more of a religious country in the middle of the 19th century, it follows that the enduring anthem of the Union effort would be the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." It's Old and New Testament imagery and its emphasis on God's judgment is much better fitted to that America than to the America of modern day. Yet the conspicuously religious song has stuck around. Does it have anything to say about our present movement for nationalism?

Much of historian Richard M. Gamble's A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War would seem to indicate the answer is: not really. The anthem's author, Julia Ward Howe, was a Unitarian devotee of progressive ideas incompatible with the conservative Evangelical, Mormon, and Catholic Americans who today embrace a certain kind of Christian worldview as their political foundation. Most of those who might come anywhere near religious nationalism are, in fact, far away from Howe's Unitarianism. Yet, it is that faith that led her to pen a song that has continually resonated with orthodox Christians and Mormons who wear American pride on their sleeves. This contradiction is embarrassing, in Gamble's view, since Howe looked down on conservative Christianity and abhorred Mormonism. The apparent historical and theological illiteracy of its fans renders the singing of the "Battle Hymn" somewhat problematic.

But the song was nevertheless used over and over by all these non-Unitarians who were taken by it. Billy Graham used it in his crusades, populist conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh have celebrated it, and even a prominent Catholic progressive, Monsignor Charles Pope, in 2010 dubbed it "the Bible Hymn of the Republic" for asserting timeless truths found in Scripture. It even became big in the United Kingdom, loved especially by Winston Churchill, who had it played at his funeral. The song has stubbornly survived through generations, even and perhaps especially among groups whose claim to it is tenuous, in Gamble's view. (One of the only groups whose claim to the hymn Gamble accepts is the Civil Rights Movement, for obvious reasons.)

Gamble is correct to critique the song's use in worship, but it's a little harsh to conclude that, as a national song, the "Battle Hymn" is a vehicle for Americans to "forget their history in the midst of the act of supposedly remembering who they are." The contradictions and curiosities of the song's legacy are reminiscent of the giant, diverse, messy, and thankfully pluralist country we live in.

The hymn's multiplicity of uses reflects the variety of American nationalism as a whole. Today, the president's Jacksonian nationalism differs markedly from Howe's religious nationalism—Jacksonians do not center religion, nor do they idealize the spread of American values abroad as Howe did. Howe's view of nationalism was mostly influenced by Hegel, which could make her appear out of touch with even her contemporary countrymen (who elected Andrew Jackson two decades before). Yet she gave voice to their deepest feelings about the country, as any successful nationalist must, and her song became synonymous with the Civil War struggle for emancipation.

The recent debate around nationalism on the right has been notable for its policy orientation, but the stuff of nationalism is better found in music, religion, customs, national heroes, and the pride that wells up in the breast of citizens when the flag is raised after we beat China at the Olympics. The song is a national possession now, and even a story of it as thorough as Gamble's still leaves the questions at its heart up for debate. But Gamble's answers are a valuable contribution to the discussion of nationalism, particularly because he frames it in terms of religion and the nation, rather than church and the state.

Howe's unabashedly religious nationalism and unironic spiritualization of the American experiment aligns with a certain kind of patriotic conservative, perhaps one who is hoping for a new birth of freedom in the 21st century after long feeling marginalized in a modernizing and secularizing America. Many other readers will surely see Howe's views as quaint or even antiquated. Regardless, Gamble's book is an enjoyable way to heed the call to understand the present by looking to the past while America and the world experience a reawakening of the nationalist spirit.