How does God bless America? |

How does God bless America?

To whip up enthusiasm at the end of speeches, politicians recite what Americans expect to hear. “God bless you!” our statesmen shout. “And God bless the United States of America!”

Are these patriotic rhetorical flourishes credible? Does God pick our nation as His favorite over other countries? Does He habitually bless America?

Thomas Jefferson in his last letter before death expressed belief in God choosing our nation for a special task. We are to shine as a beacon of hope to the world. Jefferson underscored a lifelong conviction that the American Revolution would be “the signal of arousing men to burst chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessing and security of self-government.” Jefferson detested religious despots who robbed people of their personal liberties. God blesses those who protect rights that bad religion often denies.

Then our third president put on hopeful spectacles, foreseeing how eventually all nations on the earth “(to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all)” would inherit divine blessings when they became Republics.

Such trust in God’s blessing upon our fair nation spurred on Manifest Destiny in the 19th century, a strong messianic impulse that the United States enjoys a special place among the family of nations. We are placed upon earth to spread freedom and democracy through the world. God confers His blessing upon this special task.

Such convictions are so securely anchored in our national identity that few politicians dare question them. Because belief in America’s special destiny is ingrained in our history, we expect our leaders to sign off speeches with “God bless America!”

Running through U.S. history like a strong current is the conviction President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed. Our national mission is “to bring civilization to the waste spaces of the earth,” using liberty’s building blocks to erect a vast liberty-loving empire. When he attacked Iraq in order to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with freedom, President George W. Bush repeatedly echoed Roosevelt’s conviction.

Rhetoric assuming God’s national blessing enjoys a venerated history. When English Puritans settled Massachusetts, their goal of building a colony founded upon the word of God showed universal intent. The Puritan experiment in liberty would act as a springboard to catapult freedom worldwide.

The Puritans ignited their imaginations using a glowing symbol to legitimize their claim that America has a special task to perform. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. “A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). Inspired by this insight, John Winthrop wrote in 1630, “Wee (sic) shall be as a City upon a Hill. The eies (sic) of all the people are upon us.”

The Monroe Doctrine in 1823 warned foreign powers not to colonize in the Americas. President John Quincy Adams burnished “God Bless America” with brawn and bombast. He saw the United States standing like a Colossus, bestriding two oceans, and lighting freedom’s flame over the globe. “He who has won America,” John Quincy’s grandson Brooks Adams bragged, “might aspire to that universal empire which has been an ideal since the dawn of creation.”

The danger of assuming our nation is unique in God’s eyes is that we become full of bombast and braggadocio. We act as if the Divine rubberstamps whatever territorial expansion our armies dominant. What is forgotten is the biblical emphasis: God’s blessing carries with it enormous responsibility. Our nation falters when we equate military power with divine blessing. God is not mocked. He gives favor to those who humbly serve, rather than usurp power.

Former President Ronald Reagan rightly sensed how easily we pervert divine blessing, wielding it like a nationalistic sword. After leaving office, Reagan made a tape in which he expressed the special purpose for which our nation was created. “I’ve always believed that there was some plan that put this continent here,” Reagan exclaimed, sounding like a Puritan preacher, “to be found by people from every corner of the world who had the courage and the love of freedom enough to uproot themselves, leave family and friends and homeland, to come here and develop a whole new breed of people called American. You look at the beauty of it. God really did shed his grace on America, as the song says.”

What does “God bless America” mean? The United States is an experiment of freedom in the making. We are placed upon earth to serve, not usurp; to help, not dominate; to admit our national sins, not avoid them; and, to shine upon the dark corners of the world with freedom’s blazing light.

In late January 1988 President Reagan spoke to our nation from the Oval Office, bidding farewell. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than the oceans, wind swept, God blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here….” God blesses America when our nation doesn’t exploit its status as the world’s power but acts as liberty’s servant towards other nations.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which aims to enhance Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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