A thoughtful Religion News Service commentary notes that some conservative Christians are now troubled by the sentiment of “God Bless America” in a time of state imposed same sex marriage. This trend of spiritual ambivalence towards the nation will likely continue and is itself troubling.
Some on the Left have been discomfited by “God Bless America” since almost its start, with left-wing folk singer Woodrie Guthrie composing his riposte, “This Land Is Your Land.” More recently, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright urged an alternative sentiment: “God damn America!”
Russian immigrant Irving Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America’ in 1918 during WWI but didn’t publicize it until the eve of WWII. Here are the lyrics:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free. Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:
God bless America, land that I love, Stand beside her and guide her Through the night with a light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies, To the oceans white with foam, God bless America, My home sweet home.
Originally the lyrics asked God to guide America “to the right,” but the words were changed to “through the night” to avoid political connotations. Clearly the song was never self congratulatory or purely nationalistic. It instead combined gratitude with pleas for divine guidance and correction.
Berlin’s family quit czarist Russia in the 1890s after their house was burned in an anti-Jewish program by Cossacks, which was Berlin’s earliest childhood memory. When Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, and later unveiling it 20 years later, his adopted country was likely the safest place on earth for Jews. But doubtless he knew that Jewish people in America still faced discrimination and were excluded from full participation in parts of public and social life.
Berlin would also have known that America was flawed in many other ways. Racial discrimination would continue legally for another 45 or more years. There were still lynchings of black people, who were still segregated in the armed forces until after WWII. Yet still he wrote his song, as a prayer, asking God to protect and direct America.
In our current era of endless entitlement and affirmation, “God Bless America” may sound like a demand for divine applause and reward for virtue. But the song and sentiment are rooted in a Jewish-Christian understanding that to ask for God’s blessing is to implore His mercy and added measure of His grace on undeserving persons.
Aren’t Christians called always to be a blessing and to beseech God’s blessing on their communities at all times and places? Should we ever stop? The RNS commentary says: “The only nation that God blesses in Scripture is the nation of Israel.” But God blessed Egypt through Joseph, Persia through Daniel, Nineveh through Jonah, and God tried to bless even Sodom and Gomorrah through Abraham, who pleaded for their salvation. Surely God would like to bless even sinful America?
As to some conservative Christians believing America is now uniquely depraved because of same sex marriage, was America under slavery morally better? The current abortion license no doubt stinks in God’s nostrils, although abortion rates continue to decline, thanks partly to increasing legal protections for the unborn. The Planned Parenthood baby parts horror almost certainly will accelerate America’s growing rejection of unrestricted abortion, which the courts imposed 42 years ago.
There’s never been a time when America or any nation was entirely holy. Yet Christians have always been called to implore divine protection and redemption for America, just as they are in every land. The God in Whom Christians believe doesn’t just regard and save individuals but also cares about nations and other communities that comprise His creation. Ideally Christians are a redemptive influence in every human arena.
According to the RNS commentary, “the new covenant that Jesus ushered in was one that tore down national walls rather than reinforcing them.” And “‘God bless America’ is a nice idea, and a nice song, but a pretty lousy political ideology.”
True, Jesus founded The Church as a universal body, but its members have local divinely-ordained responsibilities. And “God Bless America” is a helpful reminder of those duties. It reminds individuals and nations, even cynical politicians who might self-servingly cite it, that they are accountable to a higher Authority Who both judges and blesses.
Christians in this country should sing and pray for God to bless and protect America so long as they have breath, and even afterwards when in Heaven. In other lands, Christians likewise should plead for God’s blessing on their nations, even Christians in North Korean prison camps, or Iranian jails, or hiding in Saudi Arabia, or fleeing ISIS in Iraq, or dodging bombs in Sudan or Boko Haram terror in Nigeria, or protecting their crosses in China. No doubt, many of them are, with great urgency.
God seeks to bless all nations, and Christians are called to be instruments of that blessing.