Thursday, March 08, 2012

Why I Cringe When Presidents Say, "God Bless America"

In recent years, it's become standard practice for our presidents, Republican and Democrat, to end their speeches with variations on the statement, "God bless the United States of America."

On the face of it, it seems noble, a prayer from the political leader of the nation that God would favor America with His grace.

But I cringe every time I hear it. In fact, I hate hearing it!


First of all, it sounds to me less like a humble supplication for God's help than a xenophobic assertion of American superiority. There are many things about America I love and I am happy to be an American. But God loves all people and all nations. No exceptions.

Secondly, it's an appeal to our egos.

That's what politicians (and advertisers) do, of course. They appeal to our vanity. They woo us with soft soap about how good we are and how much we deserve.

Back in 1976, I remember that Jimmy Carter told us that we deserved a government as good and honest as the American people.

The candidates out on the trail in this miserably depressing campaign season, thirty-six years after Carter's successful run for the presidency, are launching similar appeals to our vanity. (I was going to say "launching similar cow pies." Aren't you glad that I resisted phrasing it in that way?)

To invoke God in such appeals is simply disturbing. The God we meet in the Bible--both the Old and New Testaments--wants to give us much better and more enduring blessings than the politicians envision in their stump speeches and position papers. But we block those blessings from our lives when we insist on living for "me, mine, and my kind."

The God I believe has been revealed to the world--first, through ancient Israel and ultimately, through Jesus Christ--calls us to acknowledge our selfishness and then divest ourselves of it, to rely completely on the compassion, grace, wisdom, and will of God. Christians are to check their egos at the foot of the cross and let God call the shots in their lives. Pride in country is one thing. But there's no place for red, white, and blue swagger in the Kingdom of God.

The Bible shows us that there are greater dangers in this life than those from which governments or nations can protect us. (Even acknowledging the legitimate and God-given role that governments can play in our lives.)

Before these other dangers--our own sin and the waste and heartache it brings to us, others, and the created order, the inevitability of our deaths, and the futility of a life lived in selfishness toward our Creator and other human beings--governments, presidents, and kings are impotent.

That's why these words appear in the New Testament portion of the Bible:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
The God shown to the world in Jesus Christ, Who took the death sentence our sin merits and then rose from the dead, doesn't promise us a perfect life in this world. He also doesn't promise that He will validate our egotism or xenophobia.

But if we will humble ourselves by turning from our sin and surrendering our lives to Him, He will fill us with a sense of purpose and peace in this life and the certainty of eternal life with God. He will help us to live in the relationships of tough love toward God and neighbors that He wills for the human race, not just Americans.

A third reason I'm disturbed when presidents end their speeches with, "God bless America" is that it sounds like a perfunctory add-on designed to appeal or placate the religious demographic.

The Second Commandment given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai says: "You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless those who take His Name in vain."

In explaining the commandment in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote:
We should fear and love God so that we do not use His Name superstitiously or to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call upon Him in every time of need, and worship Him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
I hope that presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama are sincerely using God's Name in God-honoring ways at the ends of their speeches.

But, as a student of history, I can tell you that George Washington didn't end all of his presidential addresses in this way. Neither did Abraham Lincoln. Neither did most of our presidents.

In fact, it seems that the more distant we grow from God in post-Christian America, the more God's Name gets used in our political rhetoric, as though we were invoking some ancient and forsaken incantation over our spiritually befuddled, take-one-from-column-A-and-two-from-column-B nation.

I'd love for our national leaders to use God's Name less and to rely on God more in their decision-making.

I'd like to keep the Name of God sacred and not hear it used as an appeal to national egomania.

When Christ becomes the center of our lives, the prayer, "God, bless America" becomes a little less meaningful.

We're more inclined to pray, "Thank You, God, for all the undeserved blessings--forgiveness of sin, new and everlasting life--that You've given to me. How can I share them, along with Your physical and financial blessing to me, with others?"

Or, we're inclined to ask God to turn America, starting with ourselves, to humble submission to Jesus Christ alone.

Or maybe, we might feel compelled to ask God to teach us how to encourage our neighbors--and our presidents--to end their speeches not with a benediction, but an exhortation: "America, bless God!"


Tony Burgess said...

I love my country, I love God more. God is universal and is in the business of blessing all of creation. I say God should love and care for his children equally and without favor.

Charlie said...

It does seem that this has become a perfunctory ending to political speeches, and perhaps is as meaningless in most cases as saying "God bless you" when someone sneezes.

However, to assume that the speaker doesn't mean what he/she is saying is a bit cynical, no? Of course, we do automatically jump to cynicism when we hear a lot of political speeches, but I can imagine the use of "God bless America" by a politician as a heartfelt recognition of his limitations as a leader and our collective need for God to transform our society.

Still, I think you're right that we are making the phrase trite and belittling God by overusing it. I sometimes lead the congregational prayers in church and I begin by reminding myself that I really am speaking to the Lord God on behalf of the church. I doubt that sort of acknowledgment of the presence of the Lord happens much in political speeches.