God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

I have always been of two minds about the way many politicians end their speeches with the formulaic phrase, “God bless America!” On the one hand I consider it vaguely blasphemous and on the other hand I consider it lovingly patriotic.

On the side of blasphemy, asking God to bless this small part of a small planet in a small solar system in a small galaxy in a very, very big universe seems to me, at the very least, arrogant. Asking God to bless our country is marginally better than asking God to bless us individually, but it is still a theological heavy lift. What are we doing asking favors from the God of the entire universe? Asking God to bless America comes from an unthinking and unjustified familiarity with God that is the death of awe before the Lord of the Universe.

And then there is the grasshopper problem. “God bless America” makes America — not God — the focus of the prayer, and the truth is that we are just a nation of grasshoppers, according to God through the prophet Isaiah.

In the 40th chapter, Isaiah is getting warmed up about people who replace worship of God with worship of the nation:

“Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. (Isaiah 40:15)”

“All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” (Isaiah 40:17)

“It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.” (Isaiah 40:22-23)

That is the grasshopper problem with saying “God bless America.” No matter how rhetorically convenient it might be to say so, God is not a PR agent for your nation or your political party.

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On the side of loving patriotism, I understand that when nations replace God, we are lost. But I also believe that when nations are both formed and informed by belief in God, we are found. This is not an appeal for a theocracy. Faith is perverted when it is given political power, but it is an appeal for exactly the kind of democracy that, thank God, we have been given in America. It is, at its best, a democracy that is built upon the shared belief articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence — that we are endowed by God with our inalienable rights. We are not endowed by America.

If saying “God bless America” causes us to remember this foundational political and theological principle of American democracy then it is a great thing to say and not only on July Fourth. This belief gives us a way to call our government to accounts for violating rights that it did not bestow and thus cannot abrogate. You can be an atheist and still benefit from this belief even if you do not share it; that is wonderful to me. A nation built upon a belief in God that will not punish those who do not share this belief is a truly great nation.

When I say “God bless America” I do not mean that God should give us anything at all. When I say “God bless America” I am asking God to help us remember to give thanks for what we already possess as a nation. We are already showered with the blessings of climate and circumstance, freedom and diversity, justice and mercy that all have caused our nation to grow and prosper. When I say “God bless America” I mean to thank God for giving us massive natural and collective instincts to assist other nations who desperately need our help and whose cries remind us again of the prophecy of God through Isaiah, “You are a refuge to the poor, to the needy in distress, a shelter from the storm.” (Isaiah 25:4). I say, “God bless America” for being the greatest shelter from the biggest storms.

On this July Fourth with the world in turmoil and terror, I want to personally and proudly lift up my love for this great nation. I am proud of our soldiers who are in harm’s way this July Fourth not in order to conquer and plunder other nations, but to protect them from being conquered and plundered by others. Yes, on this July Fourth, the side of me that wins is the side of me that says with pride, patriotism and love, “God bless America.” This Independence Day I for one do not feel like a grasshopper.