God Bless America: Be Careful What You Ask

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The Glorious Fourth has come and gone once more. We heard “God bless America” many times on this occasion of national birthday. Although we might want at least to say, “God bless America, please?” Demanding that God do it is not only impolite, but could irritate the Lord who appears to value the quality of humility in us. This raises the question, what are we actually asking of God?

It has been made clear that we do not appreciate his presence in our public places, our schools, our governmental acts. Does he function then for America sort of like the English monarch does for Britain today, to preside on ceremonial occasions and serve to bless whatever the current government has in mind to do, along with doing some non-controversial works of charity? That would appear to be the message of current U.S. policy on God.

God bless America? Why should he, then? Any reading of Scripture will tell you God doesn’t do well at accepting a limited ceremonial role in things and does still worse at going along with schemes against his will, even when the government of his chosen people is initiating them.

It is pretty clear what we are asking most of the time. It hearkens back to our Puritan heritage, when visible and material wealth and favorable military outcomes were considered a sure sign of God’s blessing upon a people. For Puritans, the reverse scenario, when bad things happen, also carries a message. Self-appointed prophets rise up in times of natural disaster or terrorist attack to proclaim God’s disfavor, explaining the event by some perceived national moral lapse. Such voices are more than questionable. But they do bring the focus on our role in blessing, not just God’s part.

Because those three simple words, “God bless America” have a mirror opposite, achieved by switching subject and object: “America bless God.” When our national purpose seems to have no room for acknowledging God, when the presence of godly symbols from any religion is highly controversial and often found illegal, when we teach our children in a public system which puts the divine on an invisible parallel track apart from our shared national reality, when our national dialog is not shaped by God’s will, America is not blessing God. In these circumstances, it seems ironic to ask God to bless America specifically. Perhaps we should go with the more generic “God bless everybody, no exceptions,” but many have very large problems with that inclusivity.

Some would claim we are a Christian nation. This can lead to bizarre conclusions. For example, Alabama erected a monument to the Ten Commandments on public grounds. Both the support for and opposition to this sees it as a Christian monument. It is, of course, a Jewish monument, even if Islam and Christianity acknowledge the Commandments as valid precepts. Christians believe that the Ten Commandments, standing alone, can only serve to show our failure to live as we ought and leave us in terminal despair.

Where do we begin in dealing with the perception of a Christian nation? I don’t have an objection to placing the Ten Commandments in public places, even though it isn’t a Christian symbol. We would have a much healthier national dialog if we were tolerant of the various expressions of the major religions among us, including the atheists (if they can find a meaningful symbol to represent nothing). I would rather have my children aware of the differing opinions and be able to discuss them intelligently than to pretend that God doesn’t exist, except off in a corner if you choose to believe he does and are careful not to tell anyone out loud. But don’t identify a Jewish monument as a Christian one. I don’t expect Jews and Moslems to be represented by a cross or statue of Christ. Why should I be represented by the Ten Commandments? Our lack of ability to have open religious dialog leads to these kinds of distortions. We seem to have a large problem in clarifying what Christianity is. Can we still be a Christian nation if large numbers of people, possibly a majority, think Christianity is represented by commandments and not by the saving grace of Christ’s action on the cross and in resurrection? What would happen if we proposed putting up a monument with the two commandments Jesus proclaimed as the crucial summary of the others?

The Founding Fathers directed that we have no national established church, supported by taxes and officially installed as the exclusive denomination for the country, as was common in the rest of the world at the time. They did not object to open religious dialog. They did not even oppose the existence of an Established Church in some of the individual states, a practice which continued in some places for half a century after the Revolution. They just didn’t want one national Church mandated. To extend this thought to mean that there can be no expression of religious thought in public is a stretch.

So, we ought to relax. Of course, there should be a Christmas Nativity scene in the park. If the Ten Commandments are put up at the Courthouse by the Jewish community, all the better. If Muslims and Buddhists want some space as well, it would be a plus, leading to some good peaceful discussions among us as to what this all means. Is that not better than the present practice of pretending that religion only exists as a private matter rather than a shared reality lacking consensus?

It would take some changed thinking, of course. Americans right now are anything but relaxed with each other. We are not comfortable with our civic ability to trust each other’s peaceful intentions. Many would rather have a public denial of God than share the proclamation with the “competition.” But ultimately paranoia is not a Christian value. We could lead the way in a loving dialog. When Christians are clear on our own beliefs and values, we are not threatened, and can have an honest, caring discussion in the public forum.

The late Rabbi Jacob Lewendowski suggested to the Jewish community that it ought to support public Christian expression, rather than strive to eliminate all evidence of Christianity in our society. His point was that the more Christians are really Christian, the more they will love and the less they will oppress the “other.” He also noted that secularization was the bigger enemy and its triumph would stifle all religions, including Judaism. That is a prophecy now being fulfilled every day.

If God were to bless America, what would he give us? Would it be a Puritan/ prosperity Gospel bonanza of larger houses, faster cars, bigger weapons, more security and the like? Or would the blessings be those of Jesus as he expressed it in the Beatitudes? Would we be empowered to make peace with other nations and stop going to war? Would meekness become a desired trait in place of over the top greedy capitalism? Would sharing be seen as a desired goal, not affluence? Would we become powerful advocates for the persecuted instead of rejecting them as refugees? Would we be known in the world as the merciful people, not the dominating ones? Would we mourn with the grieving in the world, even those we think of as our “enemies,” or those who don’t look like us, in a world where all lives matter?

God bless America? Be careful what you wish for, because it would be disruptive to national policy if we had real Christian values, those expressed by Christ. The hard question is whether or not America will bless God enough to do his will. The roadmap for this is the Gospel. If Christians don’t provide the leadership for this, who will?

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