Humanists don’t believe that God blesses America. And if you think that makes them unpatriotic, you’re wrong.
The issue is particularly relevant this week, as my office at the American Humanist Association experienced an ugly backlash when many self-described patriots excoriated my colleagues and me over a "God bless America" dispute. After being informed by two atheist students that a Florida high school was proclaiming “God bless America!” during morning announcements, we contacted the school to point out that the practice was inappropriate and that some students were offended. The school, to its credit, immediately wrote back and acknowledged the error, assuring us that the problem would not continue.
That might have been the end of it, but when word of our complaint and the school’s response got out online, God-fearing Americans erupted with outrage. Our office received a steady stream of mail from those who were livid that we would dare to object to "God bless America!" To these writers (no doubt exemplary citizens all) we are nothing but “un-American communists” (and much, much worse) who should go to hell (or at least leave the country).
As is often the case when atheists and humanists assert their rights, much of the venom directed at us is the result of a simple misunderstanding. Nonbelievers know that most people who say “God bless America!” are not intending to offend anyone, and in most situations no offense is taken. We disagree with the basic theological idea being put forward—that not only is there a God, but that this divinity would take any interest in national boundaries—but we usually deal with it by ignoring it.
There is a limit, however, to atheist-humanist toleration of pronouncements of “God bless America!” When public schools start relaying the message as part of morning announcements—basically forcing atheist-humanist kids to accept an official school position that is opposed to their religious worldview (after already enduring a daily flag salute that declares the nation to be “under God”)—nobody should be surprised when some nonbelievers finally say enough is enough.
In fact, even many thoughtful religious Americans have reservations about the overuse of "God bless America!" Invoking God in the cause of national greatness is sacrilegious to many, bordering on social egotism. Any way you slice it, the declaration asks for blessings for one particular country: yours (and nobody else’s). As such, even when it is made with no malevolent intent toward other nations, it can hardly be seen as an affirmation of universal fellowship.
An occasional patriotic statement is understandable and rarely objectionable, but regular touting of “God bless America!” is not an occasional patriotic statement. It strongly suggests that God should have a special affection for the political unit known as the United States of America. This kind of thinking, believing that God may favor your nation, is about one step removed from believing God favors your football team, and in this light the absurdity of the proposition becomes apparent.
As I point out in my recently released book, Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, the first president to end a speech with the statement, “God bless America” was none other than Richard Nixon, who used the phrase to pander to a national televsion audience as he struggled with damage control in the midst of Watergate corruption allegations. Mindful of these roots, Americans need not agree on the God issue to agree that those who would wrap patriotism in God-belief should be viewed with suspicion.
Those who exalt American exceptionalism should remember that godly nationalism can bring out the worst in any population. It’s not surprising that conquering empires frequently claim to have divine favor. The Romans, the British, and even the Nazis claimed to be fulfilling God’s plan. (Nazi SS belt buckles proclaimed, “Gott Mit Uns,” or “God With Us.”) In hindsight all such claims seem misguided, yet many Americans nevertheless believe that our empire is an exception.
A population that finds a politician attractive because he or she emphasizes nationalistic and militaristic ideals, associating God with national greatness, simply isn’t thinking rationally. Half a century ago our politicians didn't end speeches with “God bless America” but nowadays it is expected, and we'll still see criticism if they do so without wearing a flag pin on their lapel. A reasonable person would wonder what has happened here: Why the hyper-patriotism, and why must God be part of it? Are Americans so insecure as a people that we need constant assurances that God is on our side? Are we so uncertain of our ability to utilize reason in policymaking that we find it necessary to believe divine favor will save us?
So no, humanists don’t believe that God blesses America. And while we’ll accept that the phrase can often be benign, our tolerance for it is not unlimited. It’s fine if many Americans want to believe that a Supreme Being, having created time and space nearly 14 billion years ago, sees man-made national boundaries on this tiny speck of a planet as significant—but please don’t make such belief a litmus test for good citizenship, and don’t feed our kids such ideas in public school.
David Niose’s latest book, Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, is available wherever books are sold.