God Bless America

As Tyson is busy polishing his thesis, I’ll be doing a bit of guest-blogging in his stead. I am Skarpowsky.

“God Bless America” — It gets tossed around often enough: The 7th inning at Yankees games, flag presentation ceremonies, the ass-end of more than just a few pick-up trucks, but mostly it’s the capstone phrase of nearly every president or significant candidate in recent memory (except Ford and Carter — I don’t know why).

Nixon trotted it out in disgrace on national TV in 1973. To see a politician sign off without it, would signal a glaring “lack.” But who knows what it means? What it really means? “Vive La France”, “Deutscheland Uber Alles”, “By the power of Grayskull”, “Coke is it”, all have a fairly simple referential frame, but America’s modern catch-all closing is a slipperier fish.

The TIME article (linked above) sees it as a speaker’s attempt to pass the “God Test.” But does it mean anything? According to its etymology, to “bless” means to mark with blood — which is interesting, but not helpful. Is it merely a plea for most favored nation status from the almighty, a yearning to loft the USA up front — to let all the other nations languish at the rear. God? Bless the USA!, screw France, Sri Lanka, Canada (they’re only mostly like us), and Andorra. The chosen people have it all wrong — it’s the USA! Give the USA the special treatment. Like the kid who knows the coach — it’s not about the hard work, it’s about God smiling down on us. It’s out of our hands, Protestant work ethic be damned!

Or is it just a simple plea not to have any ill befall the USA? Please God, keep the USA safe, we will trade devotion for exemption if you can but spare us. All those theologians who said evil was necessary for us to have free will, they’re wrong — we don’t need hardship and we certainly don’t want it. And should ill be visited upon America, we will keep on invoking this three word phrase, perhaps out of fear, and the more our prayers go unanswered the more we will fear, and the more well will pray…

What i mean to say is how can a phrase so ingrained as to be absolutely necessary really be, at bottom, a begging for exemption, a yearning for preferential treatment, and a pretty obvious disregard for nations less “right” with the Lord?  Who can say what it means, and who can question its meaning? Yet it has to be said. Is this a sign of a healthy democracy? (Don’t answer that)

The significant point is the fact that this matters in politics. Maybe you can leave your flag pin at home, but if you don’t end your speech with this hallowed phrase, you’ll be stuck in a lunch buffet, strategizing with Nader. It is God and patriotism rolled into one, there can be no substitute for either. “Go America!” or “Yeah God!” are poor stand-ins. Yet none of this reflects on the candidate’s ability to do a job, really, none at all.

I’ll close anecdotally by saying that I once worked with a data center manager who was a devout Christian. We debated faith from time to time, never agreed, but it didn’t impact our working relationship. Who knows if he’d mutter “God Bless My Servers”, but in the end he did a good job of keeping things running.


3 Responses

  1. you left out the analogy to “may the force be with you”, speaking of which is the one i think about when i hear this phrase. it’s like in episode 4 (the OG Star Wars) right after Han drops the bombshell that he’s not going to help the rebels attack the Death Star. Luke whines like a rebuffed toddler, “well take care of yourself Han, it’s the only thing you’re good at.”, to which Han throws back “hey Luke, may the force be with you.” that never sat well with me, he’s not a Jedi, he doesn’t believe in the Force. it falls empty (but effectivly) and the reason is that it’s not in his character to say that phrase. that’s why our presidents should say it, it’s in their character, no matter if they believe it or not. ~my 2 cents

  2. That’s how I feel when I get the “God bless and keep you” Christmas cards from people I know don’t give a shit if God blesses or keeps me anything. I think it’s hollow, “God bless America”, that is. Just like like hollow “I’m sorry for your loss” condolences after you lose a loved one. People say it because they just can’t think of anything better to say that accurately depicts their feelings. Does it really matter in politics though? Or is it like the war on drugs…even those who want to legalize the use of marijuana can’t come out and say they are AGAINST the war on drugs or they’ll effectively kill their political career. Likely so, I’m pretty sure anyone ending a speech with “F-America, God hates you” would probably meet the same fate.

  3. I think you go too far in stating that “God Bless America” also means “God Don’t Bless Anyone Else.” I think people who say, and mean, “God Bless America,” don’t as a rule believe that there is any limit to God’s Blessing. I would guess that they don’t think asking for it for one’s own country means they wish ill on any other country.

    Sort of in the same way that hoping your employer gives you Columbus Day off doesn’t necessarily mean you hope everyone else’s employer makes them work that day.

    God’s Blessing is not a zero-sum game, or something like that…

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