Sunday, March 4

Bless for success.

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.


JasonC said...

Hey Doug,
If I wanted to discuss this stuff with you, but not via the postings of this blog, would you be up for that and how could I do that?

Erik Tylczak said...

Once I saw a "God bless everyone, no exceptions". I liked that one more.

I could go into some we're-all-part-of-the-body-of-Christ argument on the apparent ordering of God to bless this or that, but I won't because it's never really bothered me either way. I suppose sticking a "may" in there is better, but I'm not real concerned about it. The suggestion that God should like some people more than others always bothered me more.

(another practicing Catholic, for the record)

NCT said...

On the Friday after 9/11, designated as a "national day of prayer", I went to the church across the street from my office. When everyone was praying for our leaders and rescue workers and victims, I put myself into a bit of a meditative state (most Episcopal churches allow for that) and the only thing that dawned on me was to pray for the people who would do us harm.

I'm Christian with a twist of dharma, btw.

The whole idea of God blessing usis a strange one to me, anyway. I don't quite understand asking for "blessings" as most people use that term. As I understand Christ, the point of prayer is to get a better understanding of how we can carry out his commandments: love God and love each other. Understand that love is its own reward. Praying for blessings brings to mind the notion that we should fight to preserve our "way of life" where "way of life" isn't freedom of thought and action, but the freedom to drive a Suburban.

I welcome any excuse to discuss my Buddhist take on Christianity and to gather up and share ideas, if ever the mood strikes anyone.

Abbey Road says it all: come together. And the love you take is equal to the love you make. Oh yeah. And mundo paparazzi mi amore cicce verdi parasol.

S-Dot said...

As a minister who grew up in Atlanta and is currently living in Cincinnati, I have had countless opportunities to see Christians, especially in the Bible Belt, confuse "patriotism" with faith and assume as you pointed out that God HAS to bless America. And I assure you, the ability to make this point with simple theology is a good thing, not a negative. Thanks for your willingness to use the audience you have to deal with this.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

Thanks for the appreciative words -- and jasonc, if you want to continue this discussion offline, you can send e-mails to the official blog e-mail address, (at) Since I just recently set it up and I'm having to remind myself to check it regularly, you may not get a response from me right away, but I'll try and make sure you get one before too long.

Anonymous said...

On a lighter note, would "America, Fuck Yeah!" be alright? You can utilize your love of the f-word then.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a theological dog in this fight, but I am always in favor of being more polite.

Universal Remonster said...

It's an interesting point that you make, Doug, and I have the same beef. However, I think it stems from a much more serious defect we have as a "christian" nation. Now I am not neccesarily the best one to comment (raised in a Christian home, not Christian) but the general consensus, at least with the febble minded, is not only do we assume automatically that we are blessed but that we ask to be blessed for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways. Growing up in the bible belt has shown me a couple of simple facts; you don't always get what you pray for and there are certain things for which you shouldn't pray.

Prayer is more about communion with the lord, about understaning His power and glory, as NCT said. It's not about wanting or needing at all. I can say "God Bless America", but what am I really asking for? When I say "bless" what do I really mean? Do i mean that our economy will grow and thrive, making millions of people richer and therefore happier? Or am I asking that more people be shown the light of the lord so we, as a country, can have a more unified view of good and evil?

I don't think anyone really THINKS about that when they say it anymore, I think they just apply it to their own needs and wants and assume that by making their own hopes come to fruition they are somehow bettering America. Maybe I'm being overly cynical, but then again the christian community hasn't really done anything to solidify my faith in them recently.

I'm not accusing anyone on this blog of that behavior, it's just the observation I've made through my experiences.

Alex said...

I think the big reason "God Bless America" bothers people is that it's been appropriated by Republicans, a la "Support Our Troops." There's a connotation that if you don't agree with Republicans, you don't support the troops, don't want God to care about America, etc.

Bothers me too.

Anonymous said...

I've got a backlog of blessings over 100 deep at the moment. I'm also on my lunch break and I need a nap so America is just going to have to wait!

In the meantime, clean that dump up and get rid of the little man in the White House who has been warned to stay off the bottle and stop spreading the lie that I told him to become Prez.

BulldogBry said...

Couldn't agree more, Alex. I'm not sure when, but right-wingers stole Christianity when we weren't looking. I absolutely HATE that.
As far as the whole "support our troops" thing, my beef there is that we as a nation only support our troops when they are at war. Giving them appropriate medical care after they've come home seems to rank low on the docket (cough, cough....Walter Reed, cough)

Anonymous said...

So - Doug - you apparently like dick. Or actually, "love" dick. When did this happen? Choose your words carefully. ;)

Anonymous said...

Wow Doug, I am so glad you have opened that door of your personal closet. I really didn't know until you came out in the second paragraph of this blog. Congrats! I know it is a relief...not that there is anything wrong with that. We still love you (some of us more than others now), but who needs enemies when you have friends like us.

Anonymous said...

God loves everyone reagrdless of how "good" or how "bad" you may be. Doug will still love you, Doug, even if you love dick. He would prefer that you didn't and there may be a little "hell" to pay on your judgement day, but he still loves you. God is pure love, unconditional love. Whether or not you take him up on his open offer to enjoy his love is up to each individual. God Blesses America, always.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

Christ. Hyphens have been added to reflect my love of "dick-and-poopy jokes," not . . . well, you know. Jeez, you people are even pickier about punctuation and sentence structure than I am . . .