Written by Martin Cooper
In which preaching to the choir takes on an entirely different meaning.
Donna Fargo burst on to the country scene in 1972 with the gold-selling hits “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face,” which helped establish her as a burst of positivity against an increasingly dour national landscape.
The Watergate scandal challenged Fargo’s shiny outlook on the world, and influenced the material of her 1974 album Miss Donna Fargo. The second single, “U.S. of A.”, found her speaking to the country directly, celebrating that the country’s strength comes from its plentiful natural and human resources.
That song went to #9, but it was the follow-up to a #1 hit, one of Fargo’s first big hits to come from an outside writer. Built upon the biblical passage Matthew 5:16, it is a challenge not to those who do not have God in their life, but rather those who claim that they do:
How can you ask for truth when you do not truthful live?
How can you ask forgiveness when you don’t forgive?
I don’t mean to bring you down or speak to you unkind
But you can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine
How can you ask a child to be honest and true,
When he can only judge what’s right by what he sees in you?
How can you offer vision, yet walk around blind?
No, you can’t see a beacon if its light don’t shine
The message of the song is that you can’t allow God’s light to shine through you if you’re using it to spotlight the failings of others. If you’re going to claim the moral high ground, you can’t throw water balloons on the rest of us while you’re up there.
What keeps her from crossing over from preacher to preachy is the final verse, which essentially encapsulates what it means to be a person of faith in the first place:
May God’s love surround you, may you find a brighter day
May He grant you the peace you seek in every way
God’s light burns in each heart, yours and mine
And you can be a beacon if you just let it shine
Proclaimed against a backdrop of church organ and gospel choir, “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)” is a challenge to fellow believers to practice what they preach through action, not just word. If you feel a little guilty listening to it, as I often do, it’s a pesky little reminder to be what you claim to be.