At my home church in Birmingham, Alabama, and in churches I visit across the country, I often sing G. K. Chesterton’s “O God of Earth and Altar” to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s magnificent setting of Kings Lynn.
Written when Chesterton was in his early thirties, the hymn pulses with the bombast of nineteenth-century Anglican hymnody. Chesterton wouldn’t have taken “bombast” as an insult. He once said he could imagine Jesus leading a brass band on parade, since it was clear from the Gospels that “Christ definitely approved a natural noisiness at a great moment.” Initially entitled “A Hymn,” the poem appeared in The Christian Commonwealth, and has been included in hymnals ever since—the 1906 English Hymnal and The Hymnal (1940), as well as in Lutheran, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Reformed collections.
Musically and lyrically, it’s a rousing anthem:
O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
Few hymns offer so stark a portrait of the human condition—lies, terror, cruelty disguised as niceness, tombs of gold, lazy indifference, pride. It’s stark, and very contemporary. “Swords of scorn divide”: Chesterton could have been watching CNN or Fox News, or following Twitter. Chesterton doesn’t permit a jot of sentimentality. No “Sweet Hour of Prayer” for him; his prayer is an anguished cry. He’s not looking for a gently wafting Spirit; Chesterton invokes divine thunder. He doesn’t want God to hold back, because he knows salvation lies on the far side of judgment: “Smite us and save us all.”
I love the hymn and so do the congregations who sing it, but I can’t help sensing a rift between the hymn and the singers. After all, these are Protestants, singing a poem written by an English Catholic (though he was Anglican when he wrote it). They’re Americans, praying for a unified nation of “princes” and “priests.” Here in our country, Mr. Chesterton, we don’t have any “thralls,” not any more.
The most drastic dissonance is a political one. My world is peopled by folks like me, theological and political conservatives, mostly Republicans, who believe in God, family, country, and free enterprise. Yet here we are, boisterously belting on about the seductions of what Thomas Carlyle (and later, Marx) called the “cash nexus.”
Not surprisingly, the hymn was first sung during a 1912 strike organized by the Church Socialist League. Miners marched with a petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury singing “O God of Earth and Altar” set to Aurelia, better known as the tune to “The Church’s One Foundation.”
Chesterton always opposed capitalism, which he blamed for a host of social ills—broken homes and marriages, competition between the sexes, the erosion of parental authority, disruption of families. Worst of all, capitalism generated the “parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.”
In Chesterton’s work, capitalism isn’t free trade or profit-making. It’s an “unpleasant” system in which a relatively small class of capitalists held so much wealth that “a very large majority of the citizens serv[ed] those capitalists for a wage.” The problem isn’t capital per se, nor investment, innovation, business, or profit. The problem is distribution: More people, not fewer, should own and control productive property. Distribute capital more widely, and capitalism, in Chesterton’s sense, collapses.
I’ve never understood how distributism achieves its aims without ongoing redistribution, or how such redistribution can happen without a vast expansion of state power. But when Chesterton roars against the perils of wealth, he’s singing words that could have been penned by Jeremiah or Amos. “O God of Earth and Altar” condemns the corruptions of money in a market that puts a vulgar price tag on the priceless. It cries for deliverance from a foreign policy where the soldier answers to the banker and broker (“from sale and profanation . . . of the sword”). We drift and die because we’re entombed in walls of gold.
Conservatives have battled the progressive assault on cultural and moral norms for a generation. But something new is afoot, reflected in Marco Rubio’s “common-good capitalism,” aspects of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, and Tucker Carlson’s skepticism about corporations and the global market. What’s new is the insight that economic libertarianism colludes with cultural liberalism against permanent things. What unifies conservative postliberals is a deepening worry about the social and moral hazards of capitalism.
Christians who sing Chesterton’s hymn may never hear of Patrick Deneen, or the debate between David French and Sohrab Ahmari, or National Conservatism. No matter. They’re taking sides in one of the seismic political shifts of our time. They’re singing their way into postliberalism. If postliberalism seizes the hearts and heartland of conservative Protestants, it won’t be because of think tank colloquia or white papers. Blame it on Chesterton. As always, the music will carry the day.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.