The Semiotics of "God Bless America"

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Apr 22, 2008 3:32 PM
The Seattle Times today runs a revealing piece by a couple of professors about Barack Obama's use (or non-use) of the phrase "God bless America" and what it means -- or doesn't (HT: Real Clear Politics):

Consider this reality: The omnipresence of "God bless America" as a political slogan is an entirely recent phenomenon. We know because we've run the numbers. Analysis of more than 15,000 public communications by political leaders from Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 — the beginning of the modern presidency — through six years of George W. Bush's administration revealed that prior to Ronald Reagan taking office in 1981, the phrase had passed a modern president's lips only once in a major address . . .

They go on to conclude:

That's the problem with the "God bless America" test: Like most of the other tests that constitute modern political discourse, it doesn't mean anything.

They're wrong.  Consider the first excerpt above.  Did the authors ever wonder why the presidents prior to Reagan didn't feel the need to use the phrase?  Could it be that it was because people knew their presidents (Republican and Democrat alike) loved America, considered her an exceptional country, and believed her worthy of seeking God's blessings?

Beginning in the late '60's but really coming to fruition in the post-Watergate, Carter era, many in the New Left made it clear that they didn't believe in American exceptionalism -- and, in fact, didn't consider this country worthy of any blessings, much less God's (assuming, of course, that God wasn't "dead," as so much of the left apparently believed).  Carter-style moral equivalence insisted that this nation wasn't significantly better than the totalitarian Soviet Union.

It was into this environment that the great Ronald Reagan began seeking God's blessing on this country in public.  It was a wonderful and meaningful act.

Contrary to the authors' thesis, when politicians these days say "God bless America," it's more than just a meaningless, ritual invocation of the Almighty.  It's also taken by many of us as a sign of several things: A politician who is not too "sophisticated" to be embarrassed about saying God's name in public; a candidate who is implicitly casting his (or her) lot with those who believe that this land is a good one, one that has already been uniquely blessed by God; and a person who is defining him- or (her-) self as a religious believer.

"God bless America" means a lot -- including, of course "God bless America."