Since the start of the Iraq war I've gotten increasingly frustrated by the ubiquity of the "God Bless America" message on bumper stickers, license-plate frames, flags, and whatever else, and I think I've finally figured out why.
And no, before any conservatives out there start in on me, this isn't because I'm a godless heathen anti-Christian commie hell-bent on erasing any mention of the word "God" from the public sphere. (My love of dick-and-poopy jokes and the F-word notwithstanding, I'm actually a practicing Catholic and a regular churchgoer, though hardly an expert on matters of theology, as you will see.) I think it's more an objection to the way the phrase is used. As you may have noticed, brevity has never been a particular gift of mine, and maybe for that reason, "God Bless America" sounds too glib, too convenient for me. I like it better when you add a few words -- like, for instance, "May God bless America," as George W. Bush has ended four of his seven State of the Union addresses.
Why do I like that better? Because I'm not sure any of us has the automatic right to assume that God is blessing us. I certainly hope He is -- as, I'm sure, do the rest of you -- but I don't take that blessing as a given. I certainly think that God has greatly blessed this country in the past, more so than maybe any other country on earth, but that doesn't mean we can just take for granted that that blessing is going to continue if we as a country don't act in a Godly way. And so I think that when people say "God bless America," what they should really mean is, "Please, God, bless America." "God, I ask that you bless America." "God, if it's cool with you, we would all really appreciate it if you would bless America." OK, that last one's a bit cumbersome, but you get too much shorter than that and it almost sounds like you're ordering God to bless America -- which, and pardon me if this sounds presumptuous, I don't think any of us is in any position to do.
Sadly, it seems like that's how a lot of people mean it these days. Yes, God has blessed us more than any other country on earth, and yes, I think this is the greatest country on earth for that reason and many others. But particularly over the last few years, it seems like a lot of people have taken the attitude that because of that, God's blessing is automatic, as is His permission for us to go around the world doing whatever the hell we please. And I think you're heading into very dangerous waters when you start assuming God's blessing that way. When you get right down to it, "God bless America" is a prayer, a request, but more and more we're seeing it turned into a statement of fact.
In many ways this dichotomy seems to parallel one of the major differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, i.e. grace through faith vs. grace through works. As a Catholic, I am taught to believe that simply saying you believe in God and Jesus Christ isn't enough, you have to put your faith where your mouth is and do good works for the betterment of your fellow man; there are a number of evangelical Protestant denominations who seem to believe that works are irrelevant, you have to say you believe in Jesus Christ, you're then "saved" and boom, salvation. I know I'm oversimplifying this to some extent, certainly not all Protestant sects believe that way, and if anyone wants to discuss the nuances of this difference between the two major subgroups of Christianity then we can certainly do that elsewhere. But I don't think it's any coincidence that many of the same conservative evangelicals who prioritize being "saved" over actual works are proclaiming God's blessing of America as something that is automatic, not something that has to be earned.
This is probably going to come across as pretty superior and/or holier-than-thou to a lot of people, and I don't mean it to. For one thing, I know I'm the last person who should be acting holier than anybody, and secondly, I know I have no less responsibility than anyone else to earn God's blessing of my family, my state, my country, whatever. My only point is that earn is the operative word here. Like so many other words and phrases these days -- "love" and "hate" are the ones that spring immediately to mind -- "God bless America" is something that is repeated and tossed around without a lot of apparent thought given to what we actually mean when we say it, and I hope that we can change that.
All I ask is that when we say those three words, we do two things: One, that we remember that, like everything else for which we pray to God, it's a request, not an expectation, and certainly not a demand. (You want to start demanding stuff from God, be my guest, but give me some warning so that I'm not standing right next to you when you do it.) Two, that when we ask for God's blessing, we give a little thought to what God is asking of us in return. We may not get it completely right -- that's what forgiveness is about -- but let's at least try and figure out what it is.
So anyway, thanks for letting me vent. May God continue to bless this blog and the United States of America.