On a president asking God to bless America

Sooner or later, we’ll turn to more profane matters, but to follow up on a question from Bud:

Does anyone besides me find it offputting when the POTUS says “God Bless America”? Who started this practice? I never noticed it before George W. used it at every opportunity. Now Obama is getting carried away with it.

My first reaction was that every president in my memory had done it. But I thought I’d check, however cursorily. My quick search turned up this piece from TIME magazine. Apparently, no president from FDR through LBJ had ended speeches that way. But then…

On the evening of April 30, 1973, Richard Nixon addressed the nation live from the Oval Office in an attempt to manage the growing Watergate scandal. It was a difficult speech for Nixon: He announced the resignations of three Administration officials, including Attorney General Richard Kleindienst — but Nixon nonetheless tried to sound optimistic. As he approached the end of his speech, Nixon noted that he had “exactly 1,361 days remaining” in his term and wanted them “to be the best days in America’s history.” “Tonight,” he continued, “I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency.” Then came the magic words: “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”

Not an auspicious beginning, give the extent to which Nixon was given to self-pitying self-interest.

According to this source, neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter (surprised?) used the phrase to end speeches. But Ronald Reagan did, big-time. And every president since.

Of course, this account is rather nitpicking. Presidents before Nixon DID invoke the Deity’s blessing, just in different words:

Presidents from Roosevelt to Carter did sometimes conclude their addresses by seeking God’s blessing, often using language such as “May God give us wisdom” or “With God’s help.” But they didn’t make a habit of it.

As for whether presidents should do this or not (and Bud thinks not), I think it’s fine either way.  As I said in response to Bud earlier, I generally like it. No matter how pompous the speaker, those words end the speech on a note of humility. It’s a nod to that which is greater than the speaker and all the power he commands.

It is an invocation. OK, technically, since it’s at the end, it’s a benediction. But basically, it’s a plea sent aloft — Please bless this nation which I have been elected to serve. It’s impossible to imagine anything more benign, or more appropriate, for an elected leader to say.


I respect that some presidents have generally avoided such an invocation. Declining to do so is another way of demonstrating humility, and proper respect toward a deity. A serious, thoughtful politician might well consider it crass to invoke God in connection with a political speech, as the rest of the speech is necessarily tied to petty temporal concerns and usually designed to advance the position of the speaker.

I excuse the practice to the extent that it is a sort of departure from the rest of the speech. I tend to hear it as the speaker saying, “Whether you go along with what I said just now or not, whether I continue to serve you or not, whether I and my party prevail or be consigned to the dustbin of history, I ask that God bless our country.”

It at least gives me one thing I can always agree with.

16 thoughts on “On a president asking God to bless America

  1. Doug Ross

    God existed before America and will exist after America. There is no special blessing from God that can be given to a country. God is about you and God – not America and God or some trivial government and God.

    But maybe if we want God to bless America, we need to stop killing people. God is the god of peace not of war. When we lay down our arms and get on our knees, maybe then the blessing will come.

  2. Doug Ross

    And if you believe in God, why would you fear death at the hands of “terrorists”? God will either protect you or deliver you to the place you are headed toward for eternity.

  3. Brad

    Doug, ironically, that is a very Islamic understanding of God. Or at least the stereotype of the Islamic understanding. Islamic cultures are known, rightly or wrongly, for a comparatively fatalistic attitude. Either Allah wills that such a thing will happen or He does not; what’s the use of striving or worrying?

    Taken as a whole, Christendom is less phlegmatic, and given to trying to affect outcomes. Even those who believe in predestination. Or foreordination. However much we speak of grace, most of us implicitly believe in the importance of works, both for good or ill.

  4. Doug Ross


    So are you worried that there isn’t an eternal destination after you die? Are you doubtful that God will provide for you?

    I’m not.

  5. Doug Ross


    “what’s the use of striving or worrying?”

    “Christendom is less phlegmatic, and given to trying to affect outcomes. ”

    Sounds like you think you can impact God’s will.

  6. Karen McLeod

    Brad, wasn’t it Paul who said something to the effect of “Whether I live or die I am Christ’s”? It sounds like that same indifference to personal physical outcome. It’s the carrying out of Christ’s mandate that counts.

  7. Brad

    Yes, indeed. But I fear that Doug and I are writing past each other. I don’t quite get what he’s trying to say, and I suspect I’m not getting across to him, either…

  8. Doug Ross

    Can God bless a country? That’s the basic question. What would that mean? Wouldn’t it require the country to live up to the standards God has set forth?

    How about repentance? Would that be part of the blessing process? Would it require asking God for forgiveness for wiping out the American Indians? Slavery? Internment of the Japanese? Killing thousands of innocent people in undeclared wars on foreign soil? for spending far more money on bombs than on the basic needs of its citizens?

    Maybe if the President first asked God to forgive America he could then ask for the blessing.

  9. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Karen– I had to stop a minute until I realized you meant St. Paul and not Ron Paul. Sign of the times…

  10. Mab

    Doug, are you channeling Rev. Wright or the OIC? I hear there is an opening for a full-time self-hating American apologist.

  11. Doug Ross


    I’m not self-hating. I haven’t supported a war in my lifetime. No blood on my hands.

    Which is worse – saying you did something wrong or pretending it never happened?

  12. Brad

    Basically, Doug requires that the recipient of any blessing first be perfect — perfect by his standards, not mine or anyone else’s.

    Of course, anything that is perfect doesn’t much need a blessing, does it? It’s already blessed…

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