Before Reagan, Only Nixon Said "God Bless America"
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
In an op-ed at the Seattle Times, communication scholars Dave Domke and Kevin Coe note the absurd God & Country tests that have been applied to Barack Obama, ranging from the "Give Praise to God" test to the "Flag Lapel Pin" test and most recently the "God Bless America" test.
As it turns out, the tradition of saying "God Bless America" by political leaders is a manufactured illusion that has been turned into a patriotic sales pitch, only dating to Ronald Reagan and applied strategically in the post-9/11 Bush presidency.
Here's what Domke and Coe report:
Consider this reality: The omnipresence of "God bless America" as a political slogan is an entirely recent phenomenon. We know because we've run the numbers. Analysis of more than 15,000 public communications by political leaders from Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 -- the beginning of the modern presidency -- through six years of George W. Bush's administration revealed that prior to Ronald Reagan taking office in 1981, the phrase had passed a modern president's lips only once in a major address: Richard Nixon used it to conclude an April 30, 1973, speech about Watergate.
But Reagan brought "God bless America" into the mainstream by regularly using it to conclude his speeches. Since then, presidents and other politicians have used it nearly to death. Like Nike's "Just Do It" or any other ubiquitous catchphrase, the words eventually lose their meaning. "God bless America" has become the Pennsylvania Avenue equivalent to consumerized Madison Avenue staples.
That's the problem with the "God bless America" test: Like most of the other tests that constitute modern political discourse, it doesn't mean anything.
If a willingness to profess one's faith and patriotism and to conclude speeches with "God bless America" were accurate indicators of presidential prowess, Bush family members would have long ago secured their places among the nation's greatest leaders. Both George H.W. and George W. used it to conclude more than 80 percent of their major addresses, with the son often offering this important twist: "May God continue to bless America."
Asking candidates to demonstrate their God and country bona fides by parroting a political catchphrase is insulting and unnecessary. Journalists' and pundits' time would be far better spent interrogating the actual beliefs of those candidates so willing to ask God to bless America. After all, had the phrase not been rendered all but meaningless through overuse, "God bless America" would have to be taken as a serious theological proposition.
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