God Bless America

Every president since Ronald Reagan has employed this invocation to punctuate the conclusion of a major speech. Coming from Reagan, it was sort of a tip of the hat to the official pieties of the World War II generation. In the mouth of Bill Clinton it was a blasphemy. Now, the phrase is on the lips of people who, as the joke used to go, think "Damn" is God's last name.

Such prayers—"God grant, or bless, or give"—represent a fossilized survival of the subjunctive. Presumably, we are asking the Creator to give his blessing to the people and the government of the United States. At first sight, it seems a bit much: This is a country that encourages the infanticide of 15 million children a decade and forbids prayer in public schools and tears down manger scenes from town squares. Who is the God we are appealing to? Astarte? Or, perhaps, her latter-day incarnation worshipped in the Middle East?

The New England Puritan fathers believed that their New-Jerusalem would be favored by God above all other nations, and although only the tiniest fraction of Americans have ever followed Puritan theology (much less attempted to live by it), the official ideology of the United States has certainly incorporated the secular version of their faith in the form of American exceptionalism, the theory that America has somehow escaped the limitations of human nature, that (in the words of Madeleine Albright) "we...

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