Every president since Ronald Reagan has employed this invocation to punctuate the conclusion of a major speech. Coming from Reagan, it was sort of a tip of the hat to the official pieties of the World War II generation. In the mouth of Bill Clinton it was a blasphemy. Now, the phrase is on the lips of people who, as the joke used to go, think “Damn” is God’s last name.
Such prayers—”God grant, or bless, or give”—represent a fossilized survival of the subjunctive. Presumably, we are asking the Creator to give his blessing to the people and the government of the United States. At first sight, it seems a bit much: This is a country that encourages the infanticide of 15 million children a decade and forbids prayer in public schools and tears down manger scenes from town squares. Who is the God we are appealing to? Astarte? Or, perhaps, her latter-day incarnation worshipped in the Middle East?
The New England Puritan fathers believed that their New-Jerusalem would be favored by God above all other nations, and although only the tiniest fraction of Americans have ever followed Puritan theology (much less attempted to live by it), the official ideology of the United States has certainly incorporated the secular version of their faith in the form of American exceptionalism, the theory that America has somehow escaped the limitations of human nature, that (in the words of Madeleine Albright) “we see farther.”
The phrase “God bless America” comes from the title of a popular song written by Irving Berlin, who—whatever his other merits—did not share the religion of most Americans. Named Israel Baline by his father, a well-known cantor in Russia, he changed his name soon after his arrival in the United States. According to some acquaintances, Mr. Berlin tried hard to escape from his Jewish identity. Unlike Jews who became American without jettisoning their language, culture, and religion, Berlin became a generic American writing generic music. A secular songsmith, he wrote “White Christmas” as the nonreligious alternative to the old carols and supplied “God Bless America” as a replacement for the atavistic “My Country, ’tis of Thee.”
The presidents may be right. The vulgar jingle of a non-believing immigrant is the proper anthem for the New America that regards the Creator of the universe as a giant slot machine: Stick in enough coins for long enough, and you’re bound to hit the jackpot, regardless of who you are or what you’ve done. Writing in 1952 of the devastation wrought by both sides in the Korean War, Bernard Iddings Bell ascribed the “liquidation” of civilians to a lack of Christian love: “So will it be, or worse,” he warned, “in every land including ours, when modern war is waged therein.”
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