George H. Smith

""God Bless America"

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I just noticed that an op-ed I wrote for Newsday (2001) is available online here. I thought my discussion might provoke an interesting discussion. (If anyone is wondering why I wrote an op-ed on this topic, the answer is that Newsday asked me to write it.)

Atheists Tune in 'God Bless America'

George H. Smith

A tragedy of the dimensions of Sept. 11 can bring a search for scapegoats in its wake.

On the political left we find some who blame the supposed evils of "global capitalism," while on the political right we find some who blame the godlessness of American society.

Although the particulars differ, both camps suggest that the victims were complicit, whether directly or indirectly, in their own destruction. And thus is any concept of authentic innocence swept aside.

The Cold War is a thing of the past, so the religious right can no longer target godless communism as the source of our woes. The terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 massacre were not atheists at all but religious fundamentalists of the most extreme type, so the blame is placed on domestic rather than on foreign godlessness.

If it is true that Americans put their differences aside in a time of crisis and rally around their common values, this might help to explain the recent proliferation of "God Bless America" signs and banners throughout America. It might be supposed that Americans are returning to those religious values on which this nation was founded.

There are several problems with this interpretation, however, not the least of which is that America was specifically established as a secular nation, not a religious one. There is no mention of "God" in the Constitution. And when Thomas Jefferson mentioned God in the Declaration of Independence, he was referring to the God of deism - that rationalistic creator, popular during the 18th-century Enlightenment, who did not communicate with human beings or otherwise intervene in human affairs.

Many of America's most influential founding fathers - such as Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine - were deists highly critical of Christianity and other revealed religions. Paine (whose pamphlet "Common Sense" was the sparkplug of the American Revolution) claimed that "the most detestable wickedness, and the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion." And Jefferson followed suit with his observation that the God of the Old Testament "is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust."

Paine, Jefferson and other deists lamented the intolerance and persecution that were common features in the history of Christianity, Islam and other revealed religions. In their view, people who believe they have an infallible lock on divine revelation will often feel justified in using violence and terror against dissenters and unbelievers. Reason, not faith, is the philosophical foundation of a free and tolerant society.

Atheists are a distinct minority in our society, so we might wonder how American atheists react to the "God Bless America" signs, posters and banners that seem to have popped up everywhere. Do atheists feel excluded by this outpouring of religious sentiment? Do they feel they are being told that only those who believe in God can be good Americans?

I recently posed this latter question to a large group of atheists on the Internet, and their responses were nearly unanimous. Virtually no atheist felt in the least troubled or excluded by the public enthusiasm for "God Bless America" - so long, that is, as such expressions were by private citizens and not sponsored by government.

Although this reaction may surprise some people, it is identical to my own. For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se; rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11.

Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so meaning lies in the intent of the speaker. And in most cases the sentimental intent of "God Bless America" is something with which I and most every other American atheist can heartily agree.

It so happens that "God Bless America" is the title of a beautiful and inspirational song by Irving Berlin, and this undoubtedly helps to explain why this expression tugs at the heartstrings of so many Americans. The song and its title have become part of American culture. Only the most jaded atheist could fail to appreciate what these have come to symbolize - namely, a tribute to this land and the best in those who inhabit it.

Some religious believers may take great pleasure in the exclusionary implications of "God Bless America," as if atheists are somehow less than legitimate members of American society. But for me tolerance and understanding are part of being an atheist, so I refuse to judge a belief on the basis of its worst representatives.

I will therefore continue to judge the recent popularity of "God Bless America" in the most benevolent light possible. I will take it for what I believe most Americans intend it to be: a tribute to the ideals of freedom and tolerance on which America was founded.

Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.

Ghs

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"For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se; rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11."

In retrospect, these values were and are more threatened by America's response to 9/11 than they were by the attackers themselves on 9/11. Given your knowledge of history, I'm sure you had to be aware of this virtually inevitable outcome.

Shayne

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"For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se; rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11."

In retrospect, these values were and are more threatened by America's response to 9/11 than they were by the attackers themselves on 9/11. Given your knowledge of history, I'm sure you had to be aware of this virtually inevitable outcome.

Shayne

I wasn't asked to write about America's military response.

Ghs

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I just noticed that an op-ed I wrote for Newsday (2001) is available online here. I thought my discussion might provoke an interesting discussion. (If anyone is wondering why I wrote an op-ed on this topic, the answer is that Newsday asked me to write it.)

Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so meaning lies in the intent of the speaker. And in most cases the sentimental intent of "God Bless America" is something with which I and most every other American atheist can heartily agree.

It so happens that "God Bless America" is the title of a beautiful and inspirational song by Irving Berlin, and this undoubtedly helps to explain why this expression tugs at the heartstrings of so many Americans. The song and its title have become part of American culture. Only the most jaded atheist could fail to appreciate what these have come to symbolize - namely, a tribute to this land and the best in those who inhabit it.

Ghs

Not only for American atheists, but for the non-American variety, too.

(This one, at least.) That tune and lyric bowls me over every time I hear it, or think of it.

Fine article, George - as revealing of the USA in the distant future, as it was back then.

Tony

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In retrospect, these values were and are more threatened by America's response to 9/11 than they were by the attackers themselves on 9/11. [....]

Larry and I were on a long-planned excursion through the Southwest and up into Colorado on 9/11. The night before, we'd camped, pitching a tent, on grounds near the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Though I'd been West several times, especially to Colorado, where my mother's family had a ranch going back to the late-mid 1800s, I'd never been to the Grand Canyon. We were told of the attack by one of the camp-grounds-entrance kiosk keepers as we were leaving.

During the subsequent two weeks, continuing our excursion as planned but of course with what had happened never far from our thoughts and frequently on the radio -- seeing on bridge overpasses everywhere, on gas stations, on dwellings in the Reservations "God Bless America" while hearing what was being said, culminating with Bush's declaration of a "War on Terror" -- I kept thinking:

They've already won, they the attackers. This country is going to destroy itself responding.

I felt that, in a sense, I was seeing the end of "America," "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Tragically, I believe I was right, at least for some years to come, in my forebodings.

Ellen

Edited by Ellen Stuttle

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George:

You are a pleasure to read.

Adam

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What a fine piece, ghs. You remind us that our deepest emotions and aspirations are always greater than the names we give them.

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This called to mind a little moment from our patron saint:

Starting 8:30

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George:

You are a pleasure to read.

Adam

Thanks.

While speaking on the phone to an editor at Newsday, I could tell that she expected me, as a well-known atheist, to criticize the implications of "God Bless America." That would have been the predictable thing to do, which is why I decided not to do it. I thought the article would be more challenging to write and more interesting to read with the approach I took, especially since it still permitted me to incorporate the historical criticisms of revealed religions. Indeed, the fact that I didn't go ballistic over the word "God," which some atheists unfortunately do, probably made those criticisms more palatable to many readers.

The only other op-ed I have ever published originally appeared in the New York Times around 20 years ago. There I defended the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude atheists. I was widely criticized by fellow atheists for taking this position.

My Boy Scout op-ed was reprinted in many newspapers (my brother read it in a Florida paper), but some of the reprints were shortened and edited in ways that I didn't like. The only online version of that op-ed that I can find, which appears here, is one of those versions. I certainly didn't have all those one-sentence paragraphs in my original version, and I didn't care for other changes that were made. (I didn't know it at the time, but when a newspaper reprints an op-ed from another newspaper, it can apparently edit the piece to its own liking. JR would know a lot more about this practice than I do.)

Ghs

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"For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se; rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11."

In retrospect, these values were and are more threatened by America's response to 9/11 than they were by the attackers themselves on 9/11. Given your knowledge of history, I'm sure you had to be aware of this virtually inevitable outcome.

Shayne

I wasn't asked to write about America's military response.

Ghs

I didn't intend criticism, sorry if it seemed otherwise.

Shayne

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During the subsequent two weeks, continuing our excursion as planned but of course with what had happened never far from our thoughts and frequently on the radio -- seeing on bridge overpasses everywhere, on gas stations, on dwellings in the Reservations "God Bless America" while hearing what was being said, culminating with Bush's declaration of a "War on Terror" -- I kept thinking:

They've already won, they the attackers. This country is going to destroy itself responding.

Being naive that wasn't my response. But indeed, it seems that they've dealt a death blow to the Constitution (but it's not like the War on Drugs hadn't already ripped it to shreds). What is interesting is how so many Objectivists are allied with the chief culprits in eradicating the Bill of Rights over the years: the conservatives.

Shayne

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"For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se; rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11."

In retrospect, these values were and are more threatened by America's response to 9/11 than they were by the attackers themselves on 9/11. Given your knowledge of history, I'm sure you had to be aware of this virtually inevitable outcome.

Shayne

I wasn't asked to write about America's military response.

Ghs

I didn't intend criticism, sorry if it seemed otherwise.

Shayne

Understood. I just didn't want to get sidetracked into a discussion of America's military blunders.

Ghs

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Ellen's statement touches on an issue that I will be completing an article about by the first week or so of April.

What would have been the tactical, or moral response by the United States to the brilliant attack on 9-11?

Adam

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Thanks George, much belatedly since 9/11 was almost 10 years ago. This article said a lot that needed to be said. Also thanks to ND for posting the appropriate excerpt of an interview with Tom Snyder; it is still an inspiration to see how well she explains her ideas.

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Understood. I just didn't want to get sidetracked into a discussion of America's military blunders.

Ghs

This is far worse than a military blunder...

Shayne

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Ellen's statement touches on an issue that I will be completing an article about by the first week or so of April.

What would have been the tactical, or moral response by the United States to the brilliant attack on 9-11?

Adam

- Arm pilots, secure cockpits

- Let passengers carry arms

- Encourage all Americans to carry arms as a patriotic service to the country

I think that'd about wrap it up.

Shayne

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Ellen's statement touches on an issue that I will be completing an article about by the first week or so of April.

What would have been the tactical, or moral response by the United States to the brilliant attack on 9-11?

Adam

It looks like I am about to get sidetracked....

Shortly after 9/11, I got involved in a debate on Atlantis (or A2 -- I don't recall which) about this issue. I unequivocally condemned an invasion of Iraq, but I supported a military attack on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I said, in effect, that we should kill the bastards and then get out asap, while noting that this almost certainly would not happen. Instead, we would get bogged down in a never-ending conflict.

When fellow anarchists attacked me for supporting military action by the U.S. government, I said that I didn't really care who exterminated bin Laden and his murderous goons. If mercenaries, the Mafia, or an L.A. street gang could do the job, that would be fine with me. It just so happens that the U.S. military is a very efficient killing machine, and there were some people who were badly in need of being killed.

Ghs

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George,

That was a cool article.

I took from it basically an affirmation of American exceptionalism, but without the "God's chosen people" element religious leaders try to promote.

America is exceptional because of the ideas of freedom and rights promoted here, ones that everyday people hold on a common sense level as they go about their daily lives..

That is one thought that occurred to me as I read your article. Another tangentially appropriate thought arose while I read, so I will share it. Let's flip an apparently "unexceptional" religious saying on its head: The meek shall inherit the earth.

I believe that saying is true, but with a special meaning, not the traditional one. And the fortunate meek heirs will be led by America (ultimately, not just yet).

What greater indication of meekness is there than renouncing the use of force to impose your will on others? To willfully lay down your arms and say, "I don't want to live like that on earth. I have a better way."

That sounds an awful lot like the libertarian and Objectivist non-initiation of force virtue to me.

Actually, that sounds like me. And you. And others here in our subcommunity.

Well then.

I know I'm ready to inherit the earth.

Are you?

(And as gravy, let's make the sanctimonious religious power-mongers choke on their own words.)

:)

Michael

EDIT: Look at the irony. Our posts crossed and I discussed a spin on the meek just as you talked about efficient killing machines. Dayaamm! :)

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Shortly after 9/11, I got involved in a debate on Atlantis (or A2 -- I don't recall which) about this issue. I unequivocally condemned an invasion of Iraq, but I supported a military attack on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I said, in effect, that we should kill the bastards and then get out asap, while noting that this almost certainly would not happen. Instead, we would get bogged down in a never-ending conflict.

When fellow anarchists attacked me for supporting military action by the U.S. government, I said that I didn't really care who exterminated bin Laden and his murderous goons. If mercenaries, the Mafia, or an L.A. street gang could do the job, that would be fine with me. It just so happens that the U.S. military is a very efficient killing machine, and there were some people who were badly in need of being killed.

Ghs

A very rational response, it's part and parcel of justice to take out the attackers (assuming we pick the right targets of course). How could anarchists be opposed to justice? Also, arm the US citizens.

Shayne

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George,

That was a cool article.

I took from it basically an affirmation of American exceptionalism, but without the "God's chosen people" element religious leaders try to promote.

America is exceptional because of the ideas of freedom and rights promoted here, ones that everyday people hold on a common sense level as they go about their daily lives..

I have mixed reactions to "American exceptionalism." America was an exceptional country, but in many respects this is no longer true. I am pessimistic about the future of America, and I am glad that I will not be alive to see what our country will be like a few decades from now.

That is one thought that occurred to me as I read your article. Another tangentially appropriate thought arose while I read, so I will share it. Let's flip an apparently "unexceptional" religious saying on its head: The meek shall inherit the earth.

I believe that saying is true, but with a special meaning, not the traditional one. And the fortunate meek heirs will be led by America (ultimately, not just yet).

What greater indication of meekness is there than renouncing the use of force to impose your will on others? To willfully lay down your arms and say, "I don't want to live like that on earth. I have a better way."

That sounds an awful lot like the libertarian and Objectivist non-initiation of force virtue to me.

Actually, that sounds like me. And you. And others here in our subcommunity.

Well then.

I know I'm ready to inherit the earth.

Are you?

(And as gravy, let's make the sanctimonious religious power-mongers choke on their own words.)

:)

Michael

One can find many biblical and other religious texts with libertarian implications, depending on how one interprets them. The most common, historically speaking, was some version (either negative or positive) of the Golden Rule. This was cited for centuries as a call for voluntary reciprocity. Even Thomas Paine and other non-Christians cited the Golden Rule in this context.

Ghs

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One can find many biblical and other religious texts with libertarian implications, depending on how one interprets them. The most common, historically speaking, was some version (either negative or positive) of the Golden Rule. This was cited for centuries as a call for voluntary reciprocity. Even Thomas Paine and other non-Christians cited the Golden Rule in this context.

Ghs

This is still true. I take "love thy neighbour as thyself" to mean something like: "Know that each other person is more like you than they can ever be different from you, and has the same capacity for goodness and greatness as for evil and pettiness, as you do within yourself"

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I have mixed reactions to "American exceptionalism." America was an exceptional country, but in many respects this is no longer true. I am pessimistic about the future of America, and I am glad that I will not be alive to see what our country will be like a few decades from now.

George,

I don't share your pessimism, nor any overly-Romanticized view of the past (if this is what you hold, which I doubt). I believe our great men and women have always had a bunch of war-mongering control-freaking assholes around them--just like today.

I also think that human nature makes any short-term dream of finally arriving at the promised land totally impossible.

Here's the pattern I see. Things are somewhat all right, then they get bad, then worse, then even worse, then the great men and women stand up and put their foot down. Then thing get a lot better--until decay starts and the cycle runs through all over again.

So long as we have great men and women who are willing to adopt great ideas of liberty and individual rights, I think we are going to be fine. And gradually we will inherit the earth. It will not be by revolution, but instead by slowly crawling according to the pattern I gave. Look how long it took to get rid of slavery, give women the right to vote, etc.

The exceptional part of America, to me, is not that we are perfect. We are slow and often mean-spirited like the rest of mankind, but we eventually get it right because we want to--item by tortured item. That is what makes us exceptional.

Michael

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I can appreciate George's point, and even Rand's, in that phrase alluding indirectly to "the best possible." The good will that's put behind it ought to be welcomed.

It's the song that I cannot stand, and never could. Too much preachment in most renditions (including the iconic one by Kate Smith). And it's turned too often toward justifying feelings of American exceptionalism. Which last is perfectly appropriate when talking about the achievements of individuals, and perfectly abominable when giving props to a predatory imperial government.

Now Berlin's song is becoming an instrument of public or civic worship, with its even replacing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at the seventh-inning stretch — almost an outrage to me, as it would be to the late, lovable, growling, fellow Cubs fan Harry Caray.

Even worse, it's now often paired with Lee Greenwood's truly execrable "God Bless the U.S.A.," which makes the government-worship explicit and nauseating. Berlin would have recoiled at that. He alluded more to respect than to reverence.

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I have mixed reactions to "American exceptionalism." America was an exceptional country, but in many respects this is no longer true. I am pessimistic about the future of America, and I am glad that I will not be alive to see what our country will be like a few decades from now.

I don't see the reason to collectivize the virtues of particular American individuals and their virtues. To my mind the idea of "American exceptionalism" is anti-American nationalism and can only favor moral degeneracy by giving people a false sense of pride.

Shayne

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