United Statesians have always claimed to live in a nation blessed by God–white Americans interpreted the near complete destruction of certain Native American communities by smallpox as a sign of God’s blessing, believing that God had cleared the land of its previous inhabitants just for them; white American confidence in this same blessing in turn was seen as license to acquire even more land, even if it meant killing Native Americans in the process.
And lately, especially since 9/11, the phrase “God Bless the USA” or “may God Bless the USA” has become a prominent part of the nation’s public discourse. Presidents Bush and Obama have ended every speech with this phrase.
But, is it true? Does God Bless the USA? Similarly, is it reasonable to even hope or pray for this?
Thankfully, the New Testament, echoing much of the thinking of the Old Testament, is very specific about whom God blesses. In Luke’s Beatitudes, Jesus says:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
Similarly, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In other words, God’s blessing is not bestowed upon whomever asks for it, but upon the poor and those who do justice to the poor. So, only to the extent that the United States is poor, merciful, just, meek, and peaceful can it be justified in expecting or even asking for God’s blessing.
However, I do not think that the richest nation on earth can be said to be poor. Nor can a nation with the biggest army in the history of the world be said to be meek. Nor can a nation that acquired its land by stealing it from and or killing those who previously lived on it be said to be just, meek, or peaceful.
It would seem therefore that in expecting/asking God to bless the USA, we are not in any way speaking of or to the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ. We seem to be speaking of and to a completely different God, one whom Scripture does not know.
As Luke’s gospel makes it clear, from the God of Jesus Christ crucified, a nation like ours receives not blessings, but woes.
Ask and I shall receive! Thanks for this, Katie.
The timing of this post is quite interesting – I don’t think you meant it to coincide with Bin Laden’s death, but of course it does.
I do not like the use of “God bless the USA.” In December 2001, I had a friend from the UK come to visit me in the NYC area, where I lived at the time. We got into a conversation about the phrase and she said that when she heard it, in her mind at least she’d chime in, “but don’t forget about the rest of your children!”
This is one of many reasons I self define as Catholic American and not the other way around.
Thanks so much for your comments. 🙂
If only more “Catholic Americans” defined themselves as you do!
Nicely Done! If you haven’t read the sections in Richard Hays section on Luke’s Beatitudes and the Eschatological Reversal….highly recommend it.
Now I’d like in part comment on your post and Jarrett’s facebook comment about the poor. I agree with Jarrett that romanticizing poverty is dangerous, but I do not think that is what Luke is doing or what you mean.
The primary question, as I see it, is once again the connection with “success” in this world and holiness. Both of these texts, as well as, numerous others severs the ties between success as defined by the dominant culture and success as right relationship with God. Thus, just as the Rich Young Man goes away sad, for he had many possessions (which Clement of Alexandria interprets as Jesus’ severing the assumptions of material wealth as a signal of holiness) – we in the United States need to remember that POWER and MILITARY MIGHT is no indicator of holiness.
Does God bless the USA? – To answer that question we need to show that we are in right relationship with God, neighbor and creation? But learning from the Biblical Prophets – if we look for material and dominant culture indications for that “blessing” we are likely to be soorly disappointed at the Last Judgement – as we’ll be judged by how we treat the LEAST not the levels of our power.
Could you provide a citation to support your blood libels agains whites?
Surely, although I think you might not understand what a “blood libel” is.
But yes, I will provide some citations.
As to white settlers’ belief that the decimation of native americans by smallpox was a sign of God’s favor, see John Winthrop, one of the Puritans leader and the first governor of the colony that became the state of Massachusetts. He said that the natives were all “dead of the smallpox, so as the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.” This is found in the on page 242 of the book “John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father” and you can verify it here:
Also, John Winthrop also referred to the Puritans as coming to the new world to build a “city on a hill,” a clear and explicit statement of his belief that the Puritans had replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. You can read the text of that speech here: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/winthrop.htm
As to white euro-americans killing native americans to take their land (or simply forcing them to leave), you can check out the whole Trail of Tears incident, which is surely the most well-known but not by any stretch the only example.
You can also check out andrew jackson’s lawless and illegal wars against the Cherokee nation in order to conquer Florida and make it part of the US as well as to eradicate the safe-haven for runaway slaves that the Cherokees were providing.
I would also recommend the masterful work of history called “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America from 1815 to 1845” for more info on Jackson’s white supremacist wars against the Native Americans. http://www.amazon.com/What-Hath-God-Wrought-Transformation/dp/0195078942
For a more comprehensive overview of white americans’ wars of aggression, removal, and extermination against native americans, I would recommend the book “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.” http://www.amazon.com/Bury-My-Heart-Wounded-Knee/dp/0805086846/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304352802&sr=1-1
Hope that is helpful and I would love to hear your thoughts after you take a closer look at these sources.
I knew to expect something good from the mind of Katie Grimes: it was one of my first thoughts last night while watching John King comment wildly. Thanks.
Hope springs eternal?: many or even most of my (well-to-do, Texan, sixteen-year-old) students are also troubled by the nationalistic death jig, even without my prompting. We’re taking time out to read parts of the Letter to Diognetus today: “Christians live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.”
Keep it up!
Thank you so much, John! And thank you for sharing with us these signs of hope!
What you are doing as a teacher truly inspires and edifies me. I would love to hear more of what your students are thinking about this–especially in the context of the Letter to Diognetus.
I don’t think it is necessary to interpret America as a person subject to the Beatitudes of Christianity. America is not a nation consisting entirely of Christians (let alone Christians who take the Beatitudes seriously). The identity of “God” in the prayer/request/mantra/war chant “God Bless America” is ambiguous.
In general I think it is okay to say God Bless America, so long as one does not assume this exalts America above all nations or at the expense of other nations. From a Christian perspective, its perfectly fine if one also includes the the proviso that America lives by some general (Christian) principles that are compatible with other religions (I say this with some hesitation because I do not want to imply some kind of Puritan or Christian fundamentalist covenantal theology, the kind discussed after 9/11).
I think many, except for Fox news folks, can understand “God” in “God bless America” as a general deity, more or less Christian. Something we can all agree on and appeal to. Having said that, what does it mean when a Native American says the phrase, or when non-Christians say it, or when agnostics say it?
Having said that, I think you are right to criticize the phrase insofar as it has been hijacked by certain Christians, especially those who believe more in the gospel of wealth and not the gospel proclaimed by a crucified Messiah.
I don’t want to sound like an uncritical apologist. But I do think, in general, that America does quite a bit of good in the world. There is much evil as well–we are responsible for the death of terrorist leaders as well as spiritual leaders like Romero. The prayer for blessing can imply the request both for America’s “glory” and for its greater conformity to ethical standards that promote human flourishing. Perhaps the latter needs to be reemphasized so as to redefine the phrase.
Thanks for your thoughts.
For me personally, the fact that the “God” in “God Bless America” can function as “a general deity, more or less Christian” is precisely why Christians should keep their distance from this phrase. If it were clear that the “god” invoked in this phrase were not meant to be the God of Jesus Christ, perhaps it would be ok, (but then I might still wonder why Christians were praying to a God they know doesn’t exist). However, it is precisely because the God of the USA is so easily confused with the God of Jesus Christ and even worse actually controls and defines how we think of God even when we are being intentionally Christian (like in mass or church) that it is so scary to me.
And again for me personally, the problem with “GOd Bless America” is not just that it often implies a superiority to other nations, but precisely because we are not the type of nation scripture tells us that God blesses. Scripture does not say that God blesses those nations that do “quite a bit of good in the world” (we might disagree a bit about this) but the poor, the meek, etc, which we are not.
And as always, thanks for your comments, and I don’t think you are at all being “an uncritical apologist.” To me, it is clear you are attempting to think through these issues with sincerity and integrity.
Thanks for your reply. I appreciate and respect your thoughts.
I think, in the spirit of respect for all religions that the prayer God bless the USA can be tolerated and redeemed. This is not so much a submission to the image if a deist god rightly criticized by Johnson but rather an affirmation of the need for religious unity in a post-9/11 world.
How Catholics and other Christians interpret the prayer and catechize the faithful remains to be seen.
But to use scripture as the criteria for God’s blessing is precisely what evangelical fundamentalists do. I don’t think we should imitate them. Otherwise this just turns into a scripture duel that no one wins. God “abandoned Israel when she sinned. While God also blessed Israel when she followed the covenant, God also blessed and approved the genocide of the Canaanites. You rightly point out how that narrative played out in American history (and is now conveniently forgotten by the Republicans among others). My basic point is that scripture is not a consistent criteria; the prophets themselves are also compromised. They were not made on our modern image.
Like scripture itself, we cannot allow fundamentalists to continue to hijack this prayer and other symbols.
We need to redefine and reinterpret, not abandon, this potentially powerful means of religious unity.
I hear what you are saying about the need to “redefine and reinterpret” the meaning of “God” and not let it be the exclusive domain of “fundamentalists.” But, don’t you think defining God, in alignment with Scripture, as the God who loves the poor preferentially IS a way to redefine and reinterpret? Also, I think, as Christians, we have no choice but to define God in accord with scripture–this does not mean we are fundamentalists–in fact, i think this is part of the problem…the debate has been framed in such a way that we can only conceive of fidelity to scripture as a sort of fundamentalism, when i would argue that fundamentalism or biblical literalism ISN’T actually faithful to scripture but is a distortion of it.
Also, I think our biggest point of disagreement is whether or not, in the United States, religion, even the supposedly inclusive one that you favor (but what about atheist americans? ) is that I don’t think religion should be where we find our unity. Instead, it seems as though United Statesians should find their unity first of all in their common humanity and then secondly in a critical approach to the constitution, and thirdly in a commitment to equality and justice.
And yes scripture speaks in many different voices and is certainly not a “book of laws.” however, that the prophets thought God was a God of the poor is pretty clear. That Jesus also spoke in the voice of the prophets is also pretty clear.
As to Israel’s treatment of the Canaanites: we should be careful. This is something God allowed to happen for Israel only. It wasn’t a universal moral principle that anyone who wanted someone else’s land could take it. Sometimes as Christians we can forget the uniqueness of God’s love for Israel. In other words, as God’s elect, they have a different relationship to God than anyone else and God loves them differently. It is wrong for Gentiles to read that story and interpret it as permission for them to kill other peoples. If anything, Gentiles have more in common with the Canaanites than they do with Israel. In other words, the problem with Euro-american use of scripture was that they mistakenly thought they were God’s chosen people–they paid TOO LITTLE attention to scripture rather than too much. Again, God’s chosen people are not whoever decides or aspires to be God’s chosen people but whom Scripture says is God’s chosen people, which is Israel.
Also, in the book of Joshua we must also remember that the battle of Jericho was a rather strange battle–the whole community (it seems as though women and children were also present in this “battle”) walked around the walls of the city singing and after their seventh go-around, the walls collapsed. This should tell us that this is not a straight-forward story that grants permission to militarily mighty nations to use bombs and missiles to tear down other cities.
So you are right to point out that God does sometimes sanction violence, but, if we take the details of scripture seriously, it becomes pretty clear that God doesn’t sanction the type of violence that nations like the US or England or France does.
But again, thanks so much for your willingness to engage with me on this issue. Your thoughtfulness and passion are truly appreciated.
I always feel ambivalent, too, about arguing that we should look at things “scripturally.” I don’t mean this with any snark whatsoever, but I wonder how much of this concern to be “scriptural” is coming out of the fact that scripture was basically ignored by the Roman Catholic moral theology until Vatican II (or just before). So now the pendulum is coming back the other way maybe. We (the RCC) are kind of late to the bible party. I agree, Katie, that “the debate has been framed in such a way that we can only conceive of fidelity to scripture as a sort of fundamentalism,” by which we mean “in the style of conservative American evangelicals,” but I think it’s still important to be up front about the fact that when we appeal to the scriptures, we’re reading them with certain priorities already in mind. We’re not reading them “as they are” (since if we did, as Jennifer observes, we’d basically get nothing but a contradictory mess) but rather through a certain lens–in this case, we’re reading through the strand in the prophets that deals with the poor.
But then again maybe what’s needed in opposing “fundamentalist” readings of Scripture is something like a feminist “strategic essentialism,” except for the bible instead of for gender. Maybe we should keep saying that we need to have our ethics and understanding of God controlled by the scriptures if that’s the most effective way to advance the welfare of the poor and marginalized in the face of readings of scripture that would oppress them even further–even if that claim is (in my mind) kind of hermeneutically simplistic.
Thanks for your comments–I totally agree that it is impossible to think that anyone is able to read scripture “as it is” and to claim to do so is to do something very dangerous.
I still think that, while we can never make scripture something neat and tidy or convenient, I do think that it is by paying more attention to ALL the details of scripture (and this would include a sort of contextualizing hermenuetic in which we take seriously the historical and social context in which a text was written not to relativize it or get to some sort of value behind the test but so that we can better understand what the author “meant” to say and how a given text would have “sounded” to its original audience).
But yes, Sonja, I totally agree–there is no “objective” reading of scripture…in fact, this belief is probably what gives rise to “literalism”…the belief that anyone can just open up any page of the bible, extract any sentence, and know what it is saying.
Thanks for a thoughtful and challenging post. I think you are entirely right to be nervous about mixing/conflating patriotism and piety….But isn’t there another way to understand, interpret and pray “God Bless America.” What does the prayer that the USA come to be in right relationship with its neighbors? To a leader for human rights? to disarm and be a force for peace? Can it not be a plea for us to become a society of peacemakers? a society that protects the dignity of the poor instead of criminalizing poverty? would that not truly transform us into a blessed people?
That’s the things with prayers….we understand our need for assistance, for God, either our gratitude or pain…but I often think we understand little else by ourselves. That’s why so many have issues with not getting what they pray for – largely because they’ve decided everything and just asked god to “make it happen.” But if those millions who will proclaim god bless America, were to ask/plead God bless America and then listen/wait for what that might mean and were converted…would that not be a blessing? I’m all for separating patriotism from piety! And Katie offers a clear and honest list of the sins of our nation! And i do not think we can honestly ask for God’s blessing without facing those sins and that history – but I’m not convinced that we cannot ask faithfully, humbly and honestly (because if we did that – it wouldn’t be us/them, it couldn’t be).
Prayer is a tricky thing and it is very difficult to deal with the anger, judgement and self-serving attitude of those who think they KNOW – as if they have THE gnostic truth and sit in judgment of you. I’ve been on the receiving end of the “I’ll be praying for you” which is not a generous gesture but an arrogant judgment (for my decision to go to BC no less). I’m not certain what the form of that priest’s prayer took…but I’m fairly certain that his prayers as he intended them not answered…but that doesn’t mean “god help her” “show her the light” etc were useless….
as I certainly prayed for and sought wisdom whole time i was there….
Hello, Meg, and thanks for your thoughts. I think you are absolutely right. We definitely should be praying for the United States but I think you are right that we have a pretty poor understanding of what that prayer should actually look like…you are further right that these sort of prayers are really a form of arrogance…we want God to ratify our decisions rather than receive the grace to submit to God’s….