What: Julia Ward Howe's thunderous declaration of America's resolve, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Why: An anthem is a song that takes an unequivocal position and attempts to draw adherence to a cause. The "Battle Hymn" was written by Julia Ward Howe, who wasn't just a poet; she was an abolitionist and an unshakable defender of women's rights. She was also a pacifist, and it is the song's hallmark that such a person could be as driven to write a fiery gospel to spur the Union into the South. Those first 41 words might be the richest bit of musical imagery in the nation's history; if you saw that advancing tide coming, you would either join the host or get the devil out of the way. But it's not to be invoked lightly. When the song plays at the Republican National Convention this week, the powermongers of the right had best recall the beliefs of the person who wrote it, and why she gave it to us.

Impact: The unabashedly Christian "Battle Hymn" isn't our national anthem, and will never be; that honor goes to an "unsingable song of explosions and defeat," as the Onion once wrote. (It is not surprising that the two greatest versions of "The Star Spangled Banner" are by a warped-out guitarist and a singer who thought it needed a new melody.) But all government-sponsored anthems are suspect: anthems are written by believers, not politicians. In the frequent debates over whether the "Banner" should be replaced, the primary candidates are the placid "America the Beautiful" and the clunky "My Country, Tis of Thee." This anthem never gets onto the short list except in times of national shock. The most recent, of course, was after September 11, when the "Battle Hymn" seemed to resonate stronger with a country that wanted justice (or, if you prefer, vengeance) for its fallen. In some sense, this is a better role for the song. It's the anthem that we keep in reserve, for those dark times when we need it.

Personal Connection: I've been spending a lot of time recently with anthems (because of the Olympics) and Christian theology (because of work), and so I've been thinking about this song a lot. To put myself in the mindset of some very rigid-minded people, I've played this song every few days to refocus myself. I can't see myself thinking like the people I'm inhabiting, but I can see why people do. (I've also reminded myself that the music by William Steffe really swings. Don't believe me? Check out this jumpin' version by a Japanese girls high school jazz band.)

Other Contenders: "La Marsellaise", the national anthem that drowns out others; "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika", which survived suppression to become an official anthem of South Africa; "We Shall Not Be Moved", a staple of trade unions, freedom riders, choirs, and football clubs; most of Bob Marley's catalogue, of which I'll nominate "Three Little Birds"; two very different anti-prejudice popular songs, Nanci Griffith's "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go" and En Vogue's "Free Your Mind (and the Rest will Follow)"; The Ramones' death-to-anthems anthem, "I Wanna Be Sedated".