"God Bless America": Say What?

Just about everywhere I go these days, I see bumperstickers that say "God Bless America." Members of Congress regularly assemble themselves in front of the camera to sing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." There's a new "God Bless America" picture book out there with a family of flag-waving bears who take trips to Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. As I bike to work, a billboard overhead proclaims "God Bless America. United We Stand." On NPR last night, they put on a five year old singing "God Bless America" to her daddy.

Given how ubiqitous this phrase has become, I decided it's pretty important to understand it. But the more I ponder "God Bless America," the less I undersand just what it, in a very literal sense, actually means. Grammatically speaking, the phrase doesn't make sense. Someone listening to the phrase has to fill in the blanks to lend it meaning. But exactly how do you do that, and what does that imply?

I did the natural thing for someone with a question: I asked. A bulletin board has been set up to give anyone out of the millions of GBA-ers out there to explain to me the literal meaning of this saying. Unfortunately, as of this date I have had no takers.

Given the resounding silence so far on this issues, it seems I'll have to try to answer my own question. I've been working on this in my head for a while, and here are some possibile meanings I see:

  1. Command: God, Bless America! This is the height of arrogance, telling the supposed supreme ruler of the universe what to do. Of course, people do that all the time, under the guise of "humble" prayer. The speaker of this command is so powerful, so holy, so special that the supreme ruler of the universe listens and obeys. Goodness gracious, I had no idea there were so many holy demigods tooting down the interstate! I guess I'd better be careful about cutting them off in traffic.
  2. Description: God Blesses America. This is not only the height of arrogance but also the height of delusion, supposing to know just what the supposed supreme ruler of the universe prefers. People all around the world seem to get regular jollies out of telling other people what God thinks, so I wouldn't be surprised if some take this as the meaning. The speaker of this statement is either a mind-reader or has chats with the supreme ruler of the universe - a universe of at least 100 Billion galaxies, each with about 100 Billion stars. Certainly, George W. Bush has repeatedly expressed his belief that the United States is favored by the supreme ruler of the universe. He must have insider information, I guess. I suppose that makes George W. Bush the divine representative of God. Wow: I knew the guy was selected, not elected, but boy oh boy does this take the cake!
  3. Request: God, would you please Bless America? While some might take this to be a humbler version of #1, it still makes the bizarre assumption that the speaker actually has an inside line to the personal phone of the supposed supreme ruler of the universe - a universe made up of billions of stars in each of billions of galaxies, making for quadrillions of inhabited planets. Not only is this supposed supreme ruler going to hear the speaker in the first place, he's going to pay some special attention to the speaker, because the speaker is so special.
  4. Testimony: I Like America. In this case, "God Bless" is synonymous with "I Like." This may say something about the ego of the speaker. It may also reflect a strategic choice. The whole idea of organized religion is that somebody's got a monopoly on truth and the rest of us had better shut up and listen. This neat trick is accomplished with reference to some cosmic boogeyman (Satan, the Angel Peter) who will git us if we step out of line. Most Americans are used to this variety of justification; if God Blesses America, America must be right -- and don't even think otherwise, bub!

In any of these cases, the phrase "God Bless America" says a whole lot more about the speaker of the statement than either "God" or "America." And what it says isn't too flattering: the speaker either believes that s/he can read the mind of God, has special access to God for handy requests, can tell God what to do, or just plain is God. Perhaps instead of "God Bless America" for their car, drivers may want to consider one of the following, more clear and upfront bumperstickers:

But perhaps these stickers would not be the most accurate, either. As those of us who have encountered bullies know, there's often something beneath bravado. When people slap up those stickers and billboards and break out the "God Bless" songbook, maybe they not only don't mean what they say, but don't even mean what the words imply. Perhaps the real meaning of the phrase "God Bless America" is not "I Am Godly," but really something more like

What these statements boil down to is "I Am Afraid." And that is an understandable human reaction, since the world is often a frightening place. In the wake of September 11, 2001, even though only one thousandth of one percent of the American public was killed, our focus on the disaster makes us all feel vulnerable. It is alright to be scared. Let's just call it what it is. Let's be honest about it, and be willing to face our weakness.

The alternative -- to protectively delude ourselves into thinking we are gods, to act as though we were divine, to soothe our terror by authorizing acts of vengeance that have the curious effect of throwing others into paroxysms of falsely holy counter-reaction -- is unacceptable. It is unfortunately not true that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." More frightening than fear itself is what fear does: we become what we fear most.

Do you say, "pshaw!"? Well, if you think you can figure out what "God Bless America" means better than this, then visit the Irregular Times message board dedicated to this very question. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.