In a week of celebration in America, President Obama has seemingly placed extra emphasis on the inevitable, and inevitably infuriating, phrase he uses to end his political speeches: God Bless America. For those of us who have grown up hearing these words close many a presidential address, it is worth remembering that it has not always been this way.
The popularisation of the trite little phrase dates back to Irving Berlin’s 1918 song of the same name, which might conceivably have replaced “The Star Spangled Banner” as the country’s national anthem were it not for southern conservative opposition to Berlin’s Jewish identity. However, the expression did not pass a president’s lips until 1973 when the repulsive President Nixon uttered the words amidst the collapsing scenery of his administration at the time of the Watergate scandal. Having failed to catch on straight away (neither Gerald Ford nor the ultra-religious Jimmy Carter used the phrase), God Bless America was resurrected by Ronal Regan in 1980 and has remained as the speech ending of choice for American presidents ever since. According to David Domke and Kevin Koe’s book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, Regan and George Bush used the phrase in 90% of their political speeches, whilst Clinton and George W Bush followed suit 89% and 84% of the time respectively. Yet there is something about the current president – perhaps the fact that the words are so often preceded by seemingly thoughtful prose – that makes the tact on cliché such an irritating closing sentence.
James Fallows has argued that God Bless America is the political equivalent of ‘Have a nice day’ - an irksome, though harmless expression that has ended many a transaction across the country. Yet there is surely something more mindless, not to say ironic, about declaring God Bless America, particularly when it is used in the wake of an event that has so clearly not gone well for the U.S. (As the novelist John Updike remarked following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, ‘God might have withdrawn His blessing from America’). Nowhere was this truer than on September 14, 2001 when George W. Bush, standing on the still burning rubble of the collapsed towers, ended his short, though rousing speech, with the words God Bless America. Few in the crowd that day seemed to catch the irony of that. After all, had not the 18 hijackers been thoroughly convinced that God was blessing their work? If one truly believes that God takes an interest in these kind of things, then surely the destruction around the President that day would have suggested that the hijackers had a far greater chance of being right!
Yet, in God fearing America, the expression is unlikely to die out anytime soon. As a way of assuring the press and public that the speaker is a person of ‘faith’, no better phrase has yet been invented. It is also an incredibly easy and reliable way for speech writers to wrap up a day’s work, safe in the knowledge that they have a closing line ready to launch the audience into chants and applause. Perhaps someday an American president will have the courage to drop the tired cliché and finish on something poignant or profound. But until that day, God will no doubt go on blessing America.
by Matt Jones