Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 08/11/21

The Gospel According to Lee. Not quite. Available for pre-order now, the God Bless the U.S.A. Bible is a traditional King James-edition Bible. It just comes bound with reproductions of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance and the lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s beloved ode to America. The lyrics are signed by the legendary songwriter himself who spoke with me about why he sees in faith in God to be so compatible with gratitude for the blessings of American liberty.

JWK: How did the idea for the God Bless the U.S.A. Bible come about?

Lee Greenwood: I have a team of people who actually research ideas, a think tank, if you will. We were approached by Simon & Schuster and a few of the other publishers of books to actually produce a Bible and, through the efforts of another sponsor, we finally came up with the idea to make it a patriotic Bible. They were insistent that I would write the lyrics for the God Bless the U.S.A. and put it in the front of the Bible with a signature page but, keep in mind, this is actually a King James version of the Old and New Testament in its entirety.

So, proudly as a Christian, I am offering up the fact that in this Bible you get a patriotic reminder of how this country got started with the Declaration of Independent, the Bill of Rights, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution. Now, I know that many people have seen those documents – maybe they might have memorized the Preamble in college or in high school – but (this is an opportunity) to be reminded of how this country got started. We weren’t trying to escape religion. We were trying to build out own United States of America with the Freedom of Choice. I think this is just a great idea at this particular time in history to remind us where we are as Americans.

JWK: A lot of people seem to think that the country as apart from any idea of God or faith – when actually the founding principle is that our rights come from God and not the whims of government.

LG: That’s correct – and many of the people – I shouldn’t say “many” (more like) all of the people who settled in America were members of faith (including) who traveled on the Mayflower. I don’t know if you know it or not but there is a second Statue of Liberty that is a Plymouth Rock. If anybody has ever seen it, instead of Lady Liberty holding a torch, she has a finder pointed toward God.

JWK: Why do you feel the ideals of America are so compatible with the ideals of the Bible?

LG: It may be just because I’m a Christian and that’s the way I was raised but I do believe that Freedom of Choice stems from the fact that if, we are religious and we have morals, we believed that God was indeed blessing this nation. I think that without that feeling of having the protection of a gracious and merciful God that this country would not exist – nor will it continue to exist, I believe, without His merciful hand.

JWK: What would you say to those who say they have a problem with intertwining America’s founding documents with the Christian Bible?

LG: Well, if you’d prefer not to have it, then I guess you won’t buy it (but) it is a great book for people who are not Christians to read. I’ve heard that many times before. All of the (accounts) and quotes of Jesus Christ during that time, we still can apply them to today’s life and how we live our lives daily. So, I don’t see anything wrong with including documents of the beginning of our country with the fact that (the Bible) is a religious document.

JWK: God Bless the U.S.A. is actually one of my favorite songs. What inspired you to write it?

LG: I thank you for asking about my writing. I’ve been a writer and a musician since I was twelve or thirteen years old. You have to know how I began in Sacramento, California on a sharecropper’s farm (and) that music was in my life only because there was a piano in our trailer and my mother was a musician.

So, I began playing musical instruments very early. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I was professional – working in clubs (and) dances. I played at two of the Air Force bases very near us…I played the dances for the airmen. Many times I would see their sacrifice and how they would come home wounded – and I’d meet many of the men who had fought in combat.

My first international tour was at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska where I took my band – and that was before it was a state. So, you get the time frame. I graduated from high school, went to Nevada at the age of 17 in 1960 and I spend almost 20 years there. I was writing music all the time for many of the major shows (but) I really didn’t have the time nor a platform to write music for radio…I was just a working stiff.

But when I got my career (going) in Nashville, Tennessee, I never forgot that dream to write something that might aid those who served in the military to have some pride in what they do. Of course, I lived through the Vietnam era while I was living in Nevada. It was a terrible time. I probably could have written the song then but I was in the wrong environment and had no delivery (mechanism) for national consumption.

So, when I moved on to Nashville, Tennessee in the eighties, after touring the country – and every doghouse, outhouse and roundhouse – for about three years, I finally got the inspiration to write God Bless the U.S.A. in the back of my bus one day. It still had an interesting ride before it ever got to the public because of record choices and how you do that process but, gratefully, it did reach the public and it was Song of the Year in 1985 in Nashville.

JWK: Despite its enduring popularity, it never reached number-one though when it first came. Is that correct?

LG: U.S.A. never reached number-one (initially) but it did after the attack on America in 2001. Then it was number-one on two different charts and, eventually, three different charts (which) just showed that America needed something for unity. So, that made me very proud.

JWK: How do you account for the fact that it keeps coming back. In fact, it’s enjoying a bit of a resurgent popularity now. The video you recently did with Home Free and the United States Air Force Band has been quite popular.

LG: More than popular. It won a Telly Award for 2020 (and) was the most-viewed video (with) 200-million views actually – which is more than two-thirds of the nation. So, yes, it’s not just resurgent but it continues for decades to be for parents, grandparents, their children and their children’s children. So, I’m not just pleased. I’m gratified to know that America still clings to the fact that we’re the greatest nation on Earth and they need something like God Bless the U.S.A. to remind them of that.

JWK: It’s been something of a phenomenon. How did you first hook up with Home Free?

LG: I love this group. They are an a capella band. They have no musical instruments. One of the guys actually makes drum sounds with his mouth. It’s pretty interesting. They have done covers of many, many favorite American songs. I knew they had covered God Bless the U.S.A. many years prior. So, we are friends and when it came to my attention that they would like to do a video of it with me in it, it was interesting.

It was the first time I think I ever sang my own song and didn’t have to sing the lead all the time. (In other words) I didn’t have to sing the melody when other singers would be singing it. It gave me the freedom to actually do what I did for all those years in Nevada – and that’s be kind of a background singer. So, there were lots of opportunities which gave me the freedom to change the way I sang it. You have to realize, I sang the lead and the melody for as long as I’ve written the song – almost 40 years. So, it was interesting to draw again on my background as a background singer just to make that particular recording.

It was a lot of fun and, as you see, America really loves the fact that it wasn’t the same version they had heard before.

(Interview continues following the video)

JWK: As of now, the particular video I watched on YouTube has more than three-million views, about 80-thousand likes and over five-thousand comments. I’d like to read three of them to you.

1. I am in line waiting for my turn to vote (early vote in person) here. As an immigrant coming from a Communist country, I see this country is the best country to live in the world where you have freedom to speech, freedom to defend yourself and your family, freedom to pursue your dream. I just don’t understand why there are so many Americans who hate this country so much. I am thankful for these men and women who sacrifice their lives so we can live free here. So let’s vote to keep this country a free one, not letting it turned into a Socialist/Communist one.

2. As a Muslim in America. I thank God that He made me end up in this country where I am free to practice my religion and be who I want. I filed for my citizenship today, but I always felt as American as anyone throughout my life. I thank God I would soon be able to call myself an American. May God bless the USA, the land of the free. And that may it always be.

3. Love this song. Although I’m not an American, this song broke my heart and (I) shed a tear regarding what’s going on right now in this world. God bless the USA!

What are your thoughts when you hear people react to your song like that?

LG: My heart swells with pride. I have met many who have become citizens of the United States and they’ve told me the same thing over and over – that they love their heritage of where they come from but this country offers them the opportunities they never had before. If I can be of inspiration through that little piece of music that I wrote in 1983, I am not just happy about it. I am prideful. I can’t tell you in any more specific terms than when I hear those kind of stories I almost tear up because I’m happy that anyone would come from another country and become an American and (that) I was born here and they tell me how much they love my country.

JWK: Why do think the song is resonating again so much at this particular moment in time? Is it because we’ve had such a turbulent year or so?

LG: Well, we’re always in conflict. When people say “We’ve never been divided like this before?” (I ask) “Do you not remember the Civil War? Do you not remember Vietnam?” I mean we’ll always have crises at a particular time in history. It’s an ebb and flow about where we are in world events and how much people either hate us or love us. I think God Bless the U.S.A. is a tie – it is a bridge – between those times of peace and war. I guess that’s why people like it so much.

JWK: I would say it’s right up there with the National Anthem, God Bless America and America the Beautiful. It’s really one of the iconic and timeless songs about America.

LG: That’s a pretty strong feat for a farm kid from Sacramento, California.

JWK: Your commitment to veterans extends beyond the song. You’re also involved with an organization called Helping a Hero which builds homes for wounded veterans.

LG: Yeah, we’ve been involved with this charity for over ten years now. We’ve built over 200 homes. It is a wonderful thing when you see a veteran who has been wounded seriously – either a burn, PTSD or losing a limb or multiple limbs – and we’re able to give them another chance at life…These men and women are warriors and they’re very strong and they just need another chance, another way that they can exercise their rights as an American (to) be productive in their own personal lives. So, we give them a chance at that. Man, it just makes you so happy when you see that smile on their face (after) all the pain they have endured to reach that point.

JWK: There’s a big event regarding that coming up, right?

LG: Right. October 12th is a (celebration of) of all of the songs that I’ve recorded that were ever popular on all of the charts. Over forty artists are going to be singing my music in Huntsville, Alabama at the Von Braun Center. Those tickets are available at Ticketmaster if people want to join us that night. It’ll be filmed for television…and, during the event, we are going to name a soldier who we give a home to that night.

JWK: That should be exciting – especially for the veteran getting the home.

IMHO: A Christianity Today article suggests that we “should be troubled” by the God Bless the U.S.A. Bible because it supposedly is a manifestation of “how White Christian nationalism has been knit into the founding documents of this country.” First of all, I don’t see anything particularly white about the publication at all, nor do I see anything wrong in holistically aligning one’s positive faith values (including humility and tolerance toward those we disagree with) with the founding ideals of our country.

From my point of view, the Christianity Today article does more to feed the negative idea of a schism between faith principles and those of a diverse civil society that strives toward equal rights for everyone than the God Bless the U.S.A. Bible. It’s certainly true that some people have twisted the Bible into a weapon to force their worldview onto others. But some have done the same with non-religious documents, unfortunately including the Constitution. Overall though, I’m comfortable with the principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “all (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our rights stem from God and no religion or government can take them away. Hopefully, even atheists can agree with the basic idea that our fundamental rights don’t stem from religion or government.

The bottom line is that control-freaky intolerance is wrong no matter how it’s justified but people need not be faith-shamed out of embracing and  blessing the ideals of their country in a way that is meaningful to them.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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