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God Bless America?

July 4, 2009
[Edit: I wanted to note how humbled and enthused I am at the invitation to blog here at EC. I’m not entirely sure what qualifies to blog alongside the likes of such intelligent and faithful folk, but I am excited to be here. I look forward to many charitable, intellectually stimulating,  and spiritually fruitful conversations.]
Disclaimer: I do not here intend to make any political statements whatsoever. I am not all that interested in the conservative v. liberal polemic on the matter. Rather, I intend to attempt to make a theological point.
N.B.: I am grateful for the freedoms and rights which I enjoy as a citizen of this country, although I do not necessarily agree with the manner in which our freedoms have been won and protected throughout history, but that is a discussion for another post.

Around this time of year it is not uncommon to see flags, signs, facebook statuses, etc. which exclaim “God bless America!” It seems a nice enough sentiment and potentially a reflection of a valid and perhaps virtuous patriotism. Of course, it could also reflect an idolatrous nationalism. However, I do not intend to parse that distinction here. (See M.J. Andrew’s post). Rather, I want to ask whether it is theologically accurate or appropriate to utter this exclamation.

To my knowledge the only “nation” that God promises to bless is Israel (which does not refer to the modern nation-state of Israel or any nation-state for that matter), and we must remember that while His love is clearly unconditional, his blessing is not, not even for Israel. In the face of Israel’s idolatry and hard-heartedness God, on more than one occasion, withdrew his blessing and replaced it with the curse of exile and/or other natural consequences of the actions which expressed Israel’s will.

Additionally, Israel’s status as God’s people, while never revoked, has essentially been superseded by the one, holy, catholic (universal), apostolic Church. Thus no nation or state has a claim to be God’s own in the same sense that Israel could have made that claim in Old Testament times. Furthermore, we are a pilgrim people. Our home is the heavenly Jerusalem and our loyalty should go to all other members of the BODY before it goes to members of our nation.

Now,  I see no problem with praying for God’s blessing upon our nation. However, it seems to me that that prayer should sound more like the prayer of the repentant publican. “Lord, we, as the body of America, have sinned against you and turned our backs to you. Have mercy on us. Forgive us. Do not turn your face from us, but in your mercy bless and guide us and our leaders to conform to your Truth and Love.” Rather, the tenor and tone of “God bless America” tends to reek of pride, the vicious type. “Thank God we are not like those other damnable nations. We stand for truth and goodness and freedom. Rejoice at our greatness. God bless America the beautiful, the proud, the good!”

Perhaps our country would be in a healthier spiritual condition if we repented and did penance for the sins of our country before asking for God’s blessing, rather than praising our alleged virtues and nearly demanding blessing in an act of praise, not of God, but of ourselves, our country.

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10 Comments
  1. July 4, 2009 5:14 pm

    Joshua,

    Do you know anything about this history of the expression, from whom it originated, for instance? I also wonder if the expression “God bless [fill in name of country]” is as common in other places as it is in the U.S.

  2. July 4, 2009 6:58 pm

    Rather, the tenor and tone of “God bless America” tends to reek of pride, the vicious type. “Thank God we are not like those other damnable nations. We stand for truth and goodness and freedom. Rejoice at our greatness. God bless America the beautiful, the proud, the good!”

    I guess I have to wonder if this is a case of simply thinking about a topic too much. “God bless America!” is hardly the only expostulation of this form that one sees. I’ve seen on a number of occasions little plaques saying “God bless this family” or “God bless this home”. Around our parish I not infrequently see “God bless St. Elizabeth’s” used in announcements or on posters.

    Certainly, one should not allow oneself to fall into thinking that those groups and institutions which one loves are without fault, but it would be awkward (not to mention a little odd) if one introduced every prayer intention with a list of all the things which that person or group had ever done wrong.

  3. Joshua B permalink*
    July 5, 2009 12:19 am

    Kyle,

    Good questions, and unfortunately I do not know know the answers. Do you?

    Darwin,

    You make good points, and I certainly did not intend to unilaterally condemn any usage of the phrase “God bless….” or even “God bless America.” However in the way I have heard it used most often, it seems to differ in tone, as I said in the post, from the God bless your home, parish, etc. usage. I rarely hear those who tend to exclaim this reflect upon the sins of America in a similarly prayerful fashion.

    I am sure there are exceptions, but in my experiences as life-long citizen of middle class southern Louisiana that this tends to be an expression of nationalism. My intent here is not so much to condemn people for that, but to help them to recognize it, because more often than not, I believe, people are not intending to make an idol out of their nation or to refuse to repent for America’s sins, etc. They just tend not to think about it because it is not part of the culture.

  4. July 5, 2009 4:14 am

    I don’t, but your post has made me curious.

    • July 5, 2009 2:27 pm

      Kyle,

      I haven’t been able to find anything conclusive yet, but apparently the song “God bless America” was written in 1918, and the nation anthems of several other countries are titled “God bless [insert country name].” Most appear to have been written in the last 150 years or so.

      On the other hand “God bless you” seems to be linked either to Pope Gregory I around 590 or Pope Gregory VII. Although, it could go as far back as 77 AD.

      That’s all I have for now.

      N.B. My source is the always accurate and never fabricated wikipedia.

  5. Michael Enright permalink
    July 5, 2009 4:38 pm

    Joshua,

    I disagree. Most people seem to think that the USA is the best country on earth, and so its sins are forgivable, or perhaps even virtues. Anybody who points out we may have done something morally wrong is accused of hating America.

  6. July 5, 2009 5:45 pm

    ” disagree. Most people seem to think that the USA is the best country on earth, and so its sins are forgivable, or perhaps even virtues. Anybody who points out we may have done something morally wrong is accused of hating America.”

    Michael I guess I disagree with that. Much of history and in fact converstaion as a people has revolved around our mistakes. From Slavery to how we treated African America to Jim Crow laws etc etc. In fact moern poltical discussion is often posed around how we can be better.

    Let me point out something that is at the most visited Monument in D.C. In marble are these chilling words by Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial

    “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    I do think AMerica has a history among many of its religious traditions of talking about GOd’s Judgements and in fact “rightly” or “Wrongly” attributing various bad events to the sins of the United States and its people. Of course in this day and age when people do this they get derided by many as wackos

  7. July 5, 2009 10:13 pm

    However in the way I have heard it used most often, it seems to differ in tone, as I said in the post, from the God bless your home, parish, etc. usage. I rarely hear those who tend to exclaim this reflect upon the sins of America in a similarly prayerful fashion.

    Most people don’t like focusing on the failings of the institutions and communities they love in general. I would wager that you’ll find people with “God bless our home” or “God bless our parish” slogans similarly do not spend huge amounts of time meditating on the evils and harms performed by their families or parishes.

    This is fairly natural and human, and I’m not sure how well one can expect it to be otherwise.

    If it moves on into thinking that my family (or parish or country) without fault, and that everyone else is a lesser person for not belonging to it, then we have a problem. But short of that we’re just seeing that natural reaction to something loved.

  8. July 6, 2009 1:44 am

    Michael,

    I know that there are people who think that way, but I think they are a somewhat vocal minority, perhaps more prevalent on the blogosphere than in society at large. I don’t think we can generalize that to most of America.

    Jh,

    Good quote. I’ll be moving to DC in a month and will have to check it out.
    I think we need to be careful about presuming bad happenings = God’s judgment. I think it may be fair to say the financial crisis is a sort of judgment because it is the natural consequences of the greedy and selfish lifestyles we lead. However, I am not comfortable saying the same thing about Hurricane Katrina.

    DC,

    Thanks for responding. Again you make good points, and to a certain extent I think you are right. In many cases we are probably “just seeing that natural reaction to something loved.” However, I think there is rampant nationalism in our country, and when someone who (in most cases its unconscious) loves their country more than God exclaims “God bless America!” I think we are experiencing something of a different order.

    I spent the last 5 years teaching at an all boys Catholic high school. I could name many students who would be willing to die for their country, but I could name…maybe 2-3 guys who might be willing to die for their God. I think that says a lot, and it makes me sad.

  9. July 6, 2009 9:50 am

    I spent the last 5 years teaching at an all boys Catholic high school. I could name many students who would be willing to die for their country, but I could name…maybe 2-3 guys who might be willing to die for their God. I think that says a lot, and it makes me sad.

    That’s an interesting point — and sadly, I can well believe that it’s true — though it’s probably something of a roschart test as far as what it means. It seems to me that to a great extent Catholic formation in the US over the last couple generations has far too often given people the idea that God is not the sort of person on would die for — not so much in the sense of not being worth dying for but in the sense that it would be misplaced because God loves everyone just the way they and so there’d never be any call to do anything so blunt as to die for Him.

    It will, I fear, take the work of several generations to get that impression of the Faith turned around.

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