I appreciate a wide playlist of worship music, ranging from old hymns and freedom songs to Gospel choirs, Gregorian chants, and traditional bluegrass. I can even get my worship groove on to U2 and Sweet Honey in the Rock. But it’s hard for me to find many contemporary Christian songs that move me.
It’s partly because a lot of contemporary worship music doesn’t have the best theology. Many of the lyrics focus entirely on going to heaven when we die rather than reminding us that we have a mission to transform the earth while we are alive — to bring God’s “Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus put it. Many worship songs speak of a God who saves individuals from their sins but miss the part of our faith that is about God redeeming the world.
Worship shapes our imaginations — theologically, socially, politically. We can end up with a version of Christianity that is so heavenly-minded it’s not much earthly good. And we can end up with a version of Christianity that sings about a God who tears down walls but supports a president who builds them.
So it was equally unsurprising and heartbreaking to see dozens of prominent worship leaders gather recently at the White House to praise Jesus and bless Trump. It was a reminder that the same folks that led many of us to Christ have also led us to Trump. The same people who are writing worship songs to Jesus are defending a president whose policies and priorities are a direct contradiction to the core teachings of Jesus — things like welcoming the stranger, caring for the poor, and loving our enemies.
Every day, it breaks my heart that white evangelicals are the primary remnant of support that Trump enjoys and exploits… the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016.
So it moved me to tears when I heard Christian worship leader Daniel Deitrich write a “Hymn to the 81%.” The song is quickly going viral with lines like, “They started putting kids in cages, ripping mothers from their babies… singing glory hallelujah raise the flag… you weaponized religion and you wonder why I’m leaving to find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls…” It is the perfect cocktail of prophetic fire and Christ-like grace. It is a love song to the church and a call to repentance.
I reached out to Daniel with the tear stains still on my cheeks. Here are the lyrics to “Hymn to the 81%,” followed by my conversation with the musician who wrote it.
I grew up in your churches
Sunday morning, evening service
Knelt in tears at the foot of the rugged cross
You taught me every life is sacred
feed the hungry, clothe the naked
I learned from you the highest law is Love
I believed you when you said
that I should trust the words in red
To guide my steps through a wicked world
I assumed you’d do the same
so imagine my dismay
When I watched you lead the sheep to the wolves
You said to love the lost
So I’m loving you now
You said to speak the truth
So I’m calling you out
Why don’t you live the words
That you put in my mouth
May love overcome and justice roll down
They started putting kids in cages
Ripping mothers from their babies
And I looked to you to speak on their behalf
But all I heard was silence
Or worse you justify it
Singing glory hallelujah raise the flag
Your fear had turned to hatred
But you baptized it with language
torn from the pages of the good book
You weaponized religion
And you wonder why I’m leaving
To find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls
You’re better than this
You taught me better than this
You and I just met, after I totally loved your song and stalked you down. Tell us a little more about yourself, your church community. And tell us how you got involved in making music.
Man, it means the world that you took the time to reach out, so thank you.
So I grew up in a small farm town in southwest Michigan. I was a pretty shy kid. I’m still an introvert, but my youth pastor taught me three chords on guitar, and I’ve been writing songs and playing in bands ever since. For a good eight years, I toured with a band made up of my best friends playing bars and clubs while also leading worship more and more in my church. Eventually the band called it quits, and I became full-time staff at the church where I grew up, but those honest conversations over post-bar-show beers definitely informed how I approach church and worship music. Like, if church isn’t addressing the questions and struggles that real people are going through, what are we even doing?
About four years ago, a friend invited me to help start a new church in South Bend, Indiana. It was a risk, but the vision for the church was so compelling that my wife and I knew it was the right thing for us. We call South Bend City Church a Jesus-centered community for believers and doubters and everyone in between. It’s a place where spiritual exiles have found a home, a place where you don’t have to check your brain at the door, and it’s been so beautiful to see people who have been excluded from or wounded by the church feel safe and seen and loved. We also think that while the message of Jesus often has political ramifications, it’s not partisan. We want to be a community that transcends political parties, where those that watch CNN or Fox News can worship side by side and be challenged by the teachings of Jesus together.
When you think of worship music, what do you think the purpose is? What should it do to us as we sing?
There’s this great line from a prayer in the old Church of God hymnal. It says, “We thank you for music, and for everything that elevates our spirits above the smoggy confusions of our time and gives us hope.” I love that, mostly because I’m stuck in the smoggy confusion a lot. Worship music should give us hope — hope that the way of Jesus can bring healing and peace to a hurting world here and now.
Worship music teaches and shapes us, so what we sing about really matters. There are a ton of great songs that help us praise and thank God, but worship music should also help us lament, reflect, confess, celebrate, challenge, and push us outside the walls of the church to be the hands and feet of Christ.
I love the late songwriter Rich Mullins and had the privilege of knowing him when he was alive. He wrote good songs like this one you wrote. And some of his best songs (I think) were not always his most popular. He joked about Christian musicians saying, “God gave me this song.” Rich said, “When you listen to it, you know why God gave it away!” There’s a lot of worship music that is sterile and impotent. Where are you finding good worship music? Who are some other artists (Christian or mainstream) you look up to and have learned from or admired?
Ha! I love Rich Mullins and that quote. And man, for a long while — decades — the Christian music scene has just bummed me out. That’s the main reason I started writing worship songs a few years ago: desperation. Thankfully there are some artists on the fringe making great art for the church. The Brilliance, Gungor, and Aaron Niequist basically saved my faith a few years back. Common Hymnal is a collective of writers putting out beautiful, challenging songs with a focus on justice. My good friend Ben Grace is another artist writing songs for the church with a social conscience. Young Oceans and John Tibbs are great. We did Brandi Carlisle’s incredible song “The Joke” a while back and John Mayer’s “In The Blood”. The Highwomen have a song called “Crowded Table” that I can’t wait to introduce to our community. Audrey Assad’s “Your Peace Will Make Us One” is incredible. There’s so much great stuff out there right now, but you have to dig for it.
Tell us about the “Hymn for the 81%.” How did it come to be? What do you hope people hear and think as they pray it and sing it?
The seed for this song has been rumbling around in the back of my mind for a few years now.
In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump after, among other things, hearing an audio recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women.
In the years since, even after enacting deliberately cruel policies to rip families apart and put children in cages at the southern border, evangelical support is as fervent as ever.
I was raised in the evangelical world and was taught to take the words of Jesus seriously: love God, love your neighbor, feed the hungry, fight against injustice. I was taught that things like love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and self-control matter. That’s why I have been so confused and deeply saddened by the unflinching loyalty to a man who so clearly embodies the opposite of these values.
So this song is a lament and a rebuke, but I hope people hear that it comes from a deep well of love.
This song might ruffle some feathers, but maybe some feathers need to be ruffled. Maybe some tables need to be turned over. Hear me on this though — it is BECAUSE I was taught to take the words of Jesus and the Prophets seriously that I cannot stay silent.
And look, I’m not perfect and have so much growing and learning to do. I’m not shouting down from my high horse; I’m attempting to repeat the words of Jesus and the Prophets even though it might be uncomfortable to hear.
Above all, my hope and prayer is the refrain of this song: “May love overcome and justice roll down.”
What goes into crafting a song like “Hymn to the 81%”? How did you think of that? Do you create songs on your own or with other musicians? What does prayer look like as you listen for a song to be born?
Lyrically it started with that one line, “I wish you’d live the words you put in my mouth.” That’s been the biggest source of frustration and confusion for me. Once I knew who I was talking to in the song, the idea to model it after a hymn came — the simple chord progression and singable melody, a touch of church organ. Prayer, or at least a posture of listening, eventually brought out the love behind the critique. Like, originally I had this big loud bridge that was basically an angry middle finger to the listener. While it was cathartic, it probably wasn’t helpful. The “come home” bridge came in the moment while recording what I thought would be a demo. It was late at night in my home studio after my wife and kids were in bed. I would hit record, sing and play through the whole song, and see what happened. I remember gearing up for that angry bridge but being hit with a wave of sadness instead. “Come home, you taught me better than this” came out. That’s the take in the finished recording.
Many people are leaving the church. As a worship leader, why do you still believe in it?
Yeah, I keep getting messages responding to this song like, “This is exactly why I left the church.” My friend and teammate Ryan Yazel summed it up really well saying, “To the evangelical world that raised me, if I am distant from you, it’s because you raised me to be distant from what you’ve now become.” People have had to leave the church to continue following Jesus.
The community that has formed here at South Bend City Church isn’t perfect (maybe that’s not the point), but it’s lifegiving and challenging in the best ways. I don’t think I could follow the Way of Jesus without the support of those around me or without the practices we return to regularly. We keep discovering that there are more of us out there looking for a community to follow Jesus with.
Do you think you will write more songs like this that speak about immigrant children and challenging Trump-evangelicalism?
I wish I didn’t have to write this one! [laughing] I suspect it will continue to be necessary though. I do love writing songs that help people to not feel alone in their pain, songs that make people think a bit. I’m not afraid of confrontation when it’s on behalf of those who have been mistreated. Like I mention in the song, religion has been weaponized and the list of casualties is long. There’s so much work to do to combat white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, sexism — all the ways in which people are treated as less than the children of God that they are.
How can people follow you and access your stuff?
My music is on all the streaming platforms, but if you’re awesome you can purchase it on iTunes or Bandcamp. Click the link for all of those options. Some of it’s church music, but most is just sad indie rock. [laughing] Find me on social media under @danieldeitrich.
“Hymn for the 81%” and my other recent releases have been funded by my Patreon community, if folks are interested in supporting my work directly. www.Patreon.com/danieldeitrich
And if anyone reading this find themselves spiritually homeless, come visit us in South Bend! If that’s not an option, catch the podcast. The January 12th episode is great place to start and includes a guided meditation to reflect on your own faith journey.
A shorter version of this interview appeared at RNS.