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:
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.