A Big Day: Changing My Mind on "God Bless America"

By James Fallows

Starting with one of George W. Bush's early State of the Union addresses six or seven years ago, I have been waging my lonely campaign against the use of "God Bless the United States of America" at the end of presidential addresses to mean little more than, "The speech is over now." I am all in favor of God blessing America! I just don't want all speeches to have to end this way. Thanks to a reader note, I've now also seen this Time magazine item from 2008, confirming my view that Richard Nixon was the first president to use this ending as a noticeable device, but that Ronald Reagan was the one who made it tic-like and obligatory.*

After yesterday's photographic proof that Barack Obama deliberately writes out this ending to his speeches, rather than ad-libbing it on, a reader wrote to say that he was in fact glad to hear the president talking this way. His argument:

I have read your posts decrying the empty habit of American politicians ending every speech with "God Bless the United States of America" or some such thing.  Regarding the decline of American political rhetoric, you have a point.  But President Obama's use of this ending, forcefully and prominently delivered, has a larger purpose I think, which is to inoculate him from the scurrilous charge Republicans have in recent decades leveled at Democrats, that they are somehow anti-God. 

I am not saying Obama doesn't believe what he's saying; I think he does invoke God's blessing on America.  I am suggesting he does it publicly and loudly to say:  I am patriotic, I love this country, this we share.  Perhaps if he owns this phrase, as it seems even the right-wing noise machine has allowed him to do without challenging his sincerity, it will someday lose its nasty undertone when used by right-wing demagogues:  I love this country, I love God, and my (liberal, Democrat) enemies do neither.  Then perhaps you will get your wish, and politicians will no longer feel compelled to end every speech with GBtUSA.  However, that may be a long time coming.  Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the POW/MIA flag still flies everywhere, as if there were POWs in Southeast Asia still, with a visual political significance not unlike the GBtUSA ending:  I love our troops (and those liberal Democrats do not).

OK. It's a fair point. I will now concede that most of President Obama's addresses (within the territorial U.S.) are likely to end with these words -- and that there's a larger logic to his approach. I'll put the campaign on hold until I can work on his successor.
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* For instance, from the Time piece: "Thirty-five years ago today [ie, April 30, 1973], something remarkable happened: A U.S. President concluded a major address with the words "God bless America." Today, that would not be a big deal. At the time, however, it was unprecedented. In fact, it was the first time in modern history that it had happened."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/03/a-big-day-changing-my-mind-on-god-bless-america/38115/