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by Lionel E. Deimel

Is anyone else tired of jingoistic slogans like “God bless America” and “Proud to be an American”? Such formulations imply more than they say, and the implications are not pretty.

Consider “God bless America,” which is less transparent than we assume it to be. It isn’t even clear what kind of sentence it is. It is not a question or a declaration. Its structure suggests an exclamation (akin to “Goddamn it!”), and it could certainly be used as one—after hitting your finger with a hammer, say. Apparently, “God bless America” signs have a different intended meaning, however. I hope that most people do not take the sentence to be a badly punctuated imperative: “God, bless America,” as it is usually considered unseemly to be telling God what to do. Nonetheless, the well-known Irving Berlin song certainly seems imperative:

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
Any arrogance perceived in these lines is somewhat mitigated by the more humble and less familiar ones that precede it in the verse:
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:
“God bless America” cannot but remind us of the familiar utterance of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol”: “God bless us every one.” No one seems to regard this formulation as an affront to the Almighty, and we are probably correct in taking it as a shortened form of “May God bless us every one.” Likewise, “God bless America” seems to be shorthand for “May God bless America.”

There is nothing wrong with asking God to bless our country (or asking for other things that may be good for us, for that matter), but the people who seem to love “God Bless America” most also seem to believe that the United States holds some privileged position in God’s plan. The ugly implication is that we are godly and “they”—every other nation, I suppose—are not. Why should God bless us in preference to the people of any other country? Frankly, I think we should be saying “God bless Iraq.” Whatever virtue Iraqis may or may not possess, that country seems much more needful of God’s grace than we are just now.

Then, there’s “Proud to be an American.” This is another slogan with some of the words left out; it should be “I am proud to be an American.” Even this formulation does not completely clarify what is being said. Does the phrase mean “I am proud that I am a citizen of the United States,” or does it mean “I am proud of what the United States does (is, or whatever)”?

According to the dictionary, “proud” can refer to justifiable or unjustifiable self-esteem, an observation helpful in analyzing the popularity of “Proud to be an American.” At the most literal level, it can be said that, for the native-born, being an American is hardly something we should be boasting about. After all, it is a condition brought about neither by our actions nor our volition. Naturalized citizens, on the other hand, might justly be proud of their efforts to become citizens of a country they admire.

“Proud to be an American” could be interpreted to mean proud of the United States or of its accomplishments. This notion of pride seems less objectionable, as the person expressing pride is not necessarily taking credit for the object of his emotion. In this sense, I am proud of our Constitution and of our efforts that led to victory in World War II.

Our history indeed offers many reasons to take pride in our nation, but there have been dark episodes as well—slavery, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, Jim Crow laws, the Japanese internments, the McCarthy era, and a distressing propensity toward violence. Nonetheless, for most thoughtful Americans, American’s virtues, in the context of world history, surely outweigh her vices.

To most Americans in the post-9/11 world, however, I suspect that “Proud to be an American” represents anger, defiance, thoughtless chauvinism, and perhaps support for American adventurism such as our unprovoked attack on Iraq. It is, in other words, a more dangerous form of schoolyard bravado. It is the pride that goes before a fall.

Christian theology has been less kind to pride than contemporary dictionaries, and there is justification for pride’s being on the list of the seven deadly sins. It can be immediately hurtful to others. (“Proud to be an American” seems to say to the rest of the world, “I’m an American—and you’re not!”) Moreover, pride can beget arrogance, selfishness, thoughtlessness, indifference, idolatry, and hate.

We surely can take satisfaction in living in contemporary America, but, for the sake of others and for the sake of our own virtue, “Proud to be an American” may not be the wisest slogan that we might adopt. As we approach the 229th anniversary of the birth of the United States of America, we might do well to be humble and grateful for the blessings we enjoy today, the most important of which have been bequeathed to us by our forebears. How about replacing our bumper stickers with ones that say “Grateful to be an American” or “Thankful to be an American”? Such formulations are less boastful and more thought-provoking than what they would be replacing, and they are certainly more worthy of what many insist is a Christian country.

— LED, 6/30/2005

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