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FIRST-PERSON: Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ begins with a solemn prayer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Like many Americans, I have shed many tears since Sept. 11. Our nation has experienced profound grief since that horrible day.

For me, many of those tears came as I heard patriotic songs that thankfully have now become commonplace again in our society. America has found a renewed sense of patriotism following the terrorist assaults on New York and Washington.

The songs we sing as Americans say a great deal about how we deal with our grief and understand our place in history. Most importantly, music may demonstrate our faith (or lack of faith) in God. Songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine” offers merely escape and utopian dreams. Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and other hymns of the Christian faith, in contrast, point us to a sovereign God who holds the world in his hands and in whom we can take refuge.

As Americans turn to music to express our patriotism, we as believers in the God of Holy Scripture must be careful to apply a biblical perspective to these expressions.

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” America’s unofficial national anthem, has experienced a resurgence in America since Sept. 11. Written in 1918 and rewritten and released in 1938 “as the storm clouds gather[ed] far across the sea,” this song has surged to the top of America’s play list.

On the evening of the terrorist attacks, even a throng of lawmakers spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. After Major League Baseball returned to action, Berlin’s anthem replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in every stadium during the traditional seventh-inning stretch. When the New York Stock Exchange resumed trading on Sept. 17, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton helped lead the NYSE to sing Berlin’s song. Even on Broadway, “God Bless America” was sung. The slogan “God Bless America” is emblazoned on road signs, marques of businesses and churches, on cars and on homes.

Renewed American patriotism is a good thing. Romans 13:1-7 teaches that Christians should be the best citizens. It’s appropriate for American Christians to love the U.S.A. and to seek God’s blessings on our country.

In today’s post-Christian American culture, however, Christians must recognize that many Americans who proclaim “God Bless America” have forgotten what it really is — a prayer. Berlin’s rarely sung introductory verse ends, “As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

I’m fearful when I hear “God Bless America” from the lips of some Americans — politicians, celebrities and common folks alike — it sometimes sounds like more of a demand or presumption than a prayer.

Christians, however, should sing “God Bless America” as a petition — begging, imploring, asking God to bless our nation even while recognizing that God may do with our nation whatever he wills to advance his kingdom for his glory. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). We dare not demand or, perhaps even worse, presume upon God.

In addition to forgetting the prayerful posture of the anthem, most Americans have failed to recognize the one true and living God. As pollster George Barna demonstrated in a survey this summer, even most Christians espouse as sub-biblical view of God, Jesus and other core doctrinal truths.

Given our nation’s constitutional protections of religious freedom, it’s proper that all Americans have the freedom to express their religious convictions, including those we as Christians reject. But this vital protection of religious liberty is often turned on Christians with enormous pressure to force us to water-down the Bible’s exclusive truth — claims about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The popularity of Berlin’s song is a Mars Hill opportunity to engage our fellow Americans with these exclusive truth-claims, as Luke tells us the apostle Paul did with the Athenians in Acts 17.

In a similarly relativistic culture with many pagan influences, Paul spoke to the people of Athens about their altar dedicated “To an unknown God” and told them about the God of creation and redemption history. Paul told the religious seekers of his day that “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (verses 30-31). Like the Athenians, many Americans will reject this message, but others will turn to God and believe.

The resurgence of “God Bless America” presents a wonderful opening for ministry. For many Americans, singing Berlin’s anthem is tantamount to the Athenians’ unknown God altar. As Americans search for answers in this time of national challenge, as they acknowledge that there must be a God who is active in the affairs of humanity (Romans 1:19), we should step in with the gospel message and point our fellow citizens to the God of the Bible.

We should declare the gospel message while we pray “God bless America.”
Smith is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal.

    About the Author

  • James A Smith Sr.