In Defense of 'God Bless America'

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Long ago I reconciled myself, Zen-like, to the certainty that all Presidential speeches for the rest of my life are destined to end with the same formulaic "Amen"-style phrase. I do from time to time note what a formula -- and what an evasion of a "real" speech ending -- this has become. But, that's life.

A reader says that I am being unfair, and that the reason Barack Obama ends every speech with "And God Bless the United States of America" (a phrase that the first 39 Presidents of the United States never used to end their addresses; it was number 40, Ronald Reagan, who introduced what is now an inescapable cliche) is that he actually wants America to be blessed:

>>Your analysis still ignores the possibility that Obama is sincere in his stated desire for to God bless America, unlike those heathen savages Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. ;-) [who omitted the phrase] 

We know that Obama is quite capable of writing very strong endings to very strong speeches.  That fact challenges the characterization of his ending prayer as a crutch to avoid writing a real ending.

If he is sincere, then is it really fair to dismiss it as a cliche?  If he really means it?    

I pray over my family every day.  It is usually the same prayer. I say, "Lord, thank you for Karen and James and Judah.  Send armies of your angels to watch over them, to protect them, and keep them safe from all harm.  Give them divine health and healing.  Bring them home safely from wherever they travel.  I impart to Karen the authority over our home and our family while I am away, in Jesus' name."

Is my prayer a cliche because I say the same thing every day?   I mean every word of it.  I genuinely want the Lord to do all of those things, which is why I ask him to do them.  Catholics pray the Rosary by counting off beads as they recite prayers such as The Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary.  Does the repetition condemn it to the status of a cliche?  

It just seems to me that you are projecting motives onto President Obama that he might not hold.  Yes, it is possible that his plea for God to bless America is just a verbal tic.  It is also possible that he is saying it because he sincerely wants God to bless our country.  Why not give him the benefit of the doubt?  Or .... why not ask him?  It would make an interesting article.<<

It would indeed. Why not give it a try?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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