‘God Bless America!’ Locating Human Freedom in the Social Order

“God Bless America!”

I stared at the big block letters etched into the layers of grime, usually reserved for the mundane “wash me” message, on the back of a tractor-trailer I was following on the highway. Someone believed in those words so deeply that they took the time to laboriously hand-etch the letters, big enough to be read by passing motorists in all lanes.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, that phrase has littered church billboards and bumper stickers around the country. Old Glory has become not only a sign of patriotism but a sign of God’s blessings upon America. Flags have been draped in sanctuary after sanctuary of churches around the country as a constant reminder to congregation members that the United States is God’s chosen nation.

Our national leaders have reminded us time and again that the United States, because of its wealth and military might, has the right to pursue weaker, poorer countries when they attack us — apparently out of jealousy over our wealth and power. Not only do we have that right — that right is God-given and God-blessed. In the days after the terrorist attacks, evangelical Christians, like President George W. Bush and televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell, sought to explain the tragedy — and put God and country squarely in the middle of the fray.

Bush, speaking during the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance four days after the attacks, appealed to God to “watch over our nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come … and may he always guide our country.” Bush also called America “freedom’s home and defender,” implying that it is only through our nation’s belief in God that we have such “freedom” and some manner of sole right as its “defender.” He ended the speech with the now familiar phrase, “God bless America.” [1]

Falwell, asked to explain the tragedy during an appearance on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club talked of God lifting a “veil of protection” that God had apparently placed around the nation as a reward for its good deeds throughout history. The lifting of that veil, he said could be blamed on a litany of liberals including: “the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians who are actively trying to make than an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this to happen.'”[2]

Clearly, the president and Falwell, along with many other evangelicals, juxtapose freedom and God — but only an American style of freedom, with its wealth and military might, is that which is closest to the heart of God. By positing that America is a “Christian nation” they believe that America’s freedom and prosperity can be directly traced to its “open commitment to its Judeo-Christian heritage … America is thought to have become great because it was founded on Christian principles, recognized God’s laws, and fostered a Christian-based culture.”[3]

Based on this belief, evangelicals tend to read religious history ahistorically: “reifying the religious group’s past into a sort of ‘golden age’ of orthodoxy and ethics, one that never really existed.”[4] This view is best captured by a Baptist man who, maybe prophetically, maintained, “I think it would take something fairly catastrophic for America to be slapped in the face and realize that our nation has gone away from God, and if they would come back, things would get better.”[5]

That catastrophe, for many evangelicals, may well have been September 11th. The fervent flag waving and nationalistic strain of Christianity that permeated the country in the wake of the terrorist attacks sought to blame the attacks on the nation for turning its back on God and pursuing the litany of perceived social ills summarized by Falwell. For them, it was all the proof they needed that society had fallen so far away from God that God had been forced to lift the “veil of protection” from around his chosen nation in order to teach it a hard lesson. Any talk of American culpability in the attacks — ideas like American imperialism overseas — were soundly condemned as “un-patriotic” and definitely “un-Christian.”

Confounding time and eternity

Evangelicals, however, are mistaken. It is not the nation that has turned its back on God, it is God who has turned God’s back on America — and it’s not a recent occurrence. God forsook America a long time ago. We can proclaim, “God bless America,” until we are blue in the face, but the truth of the matter is, our ideas of blessings are all upside down. We see money, wealth and power as blessings from God, when in reality they have very little to do with God — and everything to do with a human “will to power.”

Most evangelical Christians today are described perfectly by Meister Eckhart who said about 700 years ago: “Some want to see God with their own eyes, just as they see a cow; and they want to love God just as they love a cow. You love a cow because of the milk and cheese and because of your own advantage. This is how all these people act who love God because of external riches or because of internal consolation. They do not love God rightly; rather they love their own advantage.”

And that is where America is today. We love God for our own advantage. We love God because we see God as the source of our external riches and internal consolation. In this way we do what Karl Barth calls “confounding time and eternity.”

“This is the ungodliness of our relation to God. And our relation to God is unrighteous. Secretly we are ourselves the masters in this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust himself.”[6]

This describes America today under its “God bless America” banner. By believing that God is on our side against some evil force we make God adjust to these requirements. We beseech God for victory over the “evil” we see. We are the masters of the relationship, requiring God to conform — explaining “God’s” actions using our own deep prejudices. We confound time with eternity.

By living to ourselves this way, “we serve the ‘No-God,'” Barth says. We have failed to realize that God is “Wholly Other” than ourselves and only tangentially touches human history. Therefore, we cannot find our human freedom within the social order — freedom only comes when we recognize God’s faithfulness — a faithfulness God acknowledges by “creating and maintaining the distance by which we are separated from him.”[7]

Whenever we seek to close this gap between ourselves and God, we create the “No-God” where “fetishism is bound to appear in which God is experienced in birds and four-footed things, and finally, or rather primarily, in the likeness of corruptible man … in the half-spiritual, half-material creations, exhibitions, and representations of His creative ability — Family, Nation, State, Church and Fatherland.[8] America worships many “No-Gods” including military might, money and capitalism, ‘family values,’ ‘the war on terrorism,’ and most especially its state form of piety clothed in evangelical Christianity. The “No-God” is revealed every time an evangelical Christian like Harold J. Ocknega equates God with the dominant social order. He warned, in 1942, that “unless we can have a true revival of evangelical Christianity, able to change the character of men and build up a new moral fibre, we believe Christianity, capitalism, and democracy, likewise, to be imperiled.”[9]

The lumping together of Christianity with the “blessed” social order and setting it up as the arbiter of human freedom within history proves Barth right. We confound time and eternity, putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, ordering God to do our bidding. In this way, Barth says, we create a “criminal arrogance of religion” that prevents us from “that final apprehension of truth which lies beyond birth and death — the perception, in other words, which proceeds from God outwards.”[10] In other words, we cannot think, as many evangelicals do, that we have “the Truth” from God that is absolute and has not changed throughout time.

This “criminal arrogance of religion” — this equating of our own desires with the desires of God — leads to an inverted set of values. We see “blessings” as material goods — wealth, health, cars, homes, power and other tangible items. Those who are poor, disenfranchised, homeless or ill are definitely not blessed, and are to be viewed as morally suspect since they may have done something “wrong” to deserve such a horrible fate. Blessings are seen as things that enrich us materially. “We often confuse the meaning of life with success,” writes Dorothee Solle. “In this way we remain at the spiritual level of capitalism, which regards success as the supreme value.” [11]

What it means to be blessed

The material wealth enjoyed by the United States is not evidence of God’s blessings. I propose that it is instead evidence of God’s absence. I believe that God has given up America — just as we were warned in the first chapter of Romans about how God deals with idolators who worship material things instead of God.

Our belief that material wealth equals blessings flies in the face of what Christ characterized as blessed people. According to Matthew 5:3-11, those who are blessed are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Material wealth, according to Jesus, is evil — something to be sold off for the betterment of the coming kingdom — not something to be prized above all else. The United States, as a nation, is not blessed with any of the qualities of blessedness that Jesus spells out. We are a rich nation, where the meek, the hungry and the peacemakers are marginalized, not only in society at large, but within the nation’s churches, as well. We are not God’s chosen nation — we are a nation forsaken by God — a nation that has forgotten that to be truly blessed is to be humble and meek.

“It is not for our own sake that we are called; it is not for the sake of the soul’s self-seeking that we are to repent, be converted, and believe in God. Rather: ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17). ‘You are the light of the world.’ ‘You are the salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5:13-16). … God’s law is blotted out when we want to be pious instead of practicing love (Matthew 15:3-6).” [12]

We are truly blessed when we are out in the world, giving out of our abundance to others who have little. We are truly blessed when we put aside our thoughts of personal gain, or our thoughts of revenge or triumph over some “evil” that we have identified as the source of our present suffering. “Let him take it who can, that one must lose one’s life in order to find it, that one must cease being something for oneself, that one must become a communal person, a comrade, in order to be a person at all. [13]

Until we know and acknowledge that we are all connected in this world, then we will continue to create “No-Gods” of nation, family, military, and capitalism and set them up as evidence of our “blessings” from God. In reality, our freedom is not found in the social order, but in the acknowledgement that God is not on our side, or on anyone’s side. Instead, God is the source of all — the ground of all being — that flows without regard to race, color, creed, sexual orientation, nationality, wealth, poverty, piety or morality. God blesses us — be we nation or individual — when we realize we are not living simply for ourselves or for our nation, but for God and each other.