“God Bless America” and other political tricks

What follows is an article from the Newsweek website (orig posted 3/28/08.)

It is an interesting article, dealing with the various tests that political candidates are put through– tests that somehow have been given meaning and importance but are really worthless and shallow. Although the article focus’ on Barack Obama and the tests— I encourage you to look beyond that, to the idea of these tests, and the importance that has been given to them, in our political landscape.

(Emphasis are mine.)

written by David Domke and Kevin Coe

For Barack Obama, campaign 2008 has been a series of absurd but consequential tests.

First, there was the faith test: Profess publicly that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior. Each candidate faced this test, but the stakes were higher for Obama because of the whisper campaign that he was (gasp!) a Muslim. He passed this test by often beginning speeches with “Giving all praise and honor to God” and noticeably ratcheting up his Christian references in key contexts.

Then there was the patriotism test: Observe the Pledge of Allegiance and wear an American flag lapel pin. Some falsely said that Obama hasn’t always done the former, whereas it is the case that Obama has not always done the latter, and he offered this response: “I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart.” This comment was lauded on the left and jeered on the right. Given that the left matters more for Obama in the primary season, he cleared the bar.

Having passed the God test and the country test, Obama in the last two weeks has been subjected to the God and country test: embrace the nation’s beloved slogan, “God bless America.”

When Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remix of this political favorite began to hit the airwaves earlier this month, Obama appeared on several cable news programs to attempt damage control. In a CNN interview, Anderson Cooper put this question to Obama: “Just for the record, you have no problem singing ‘God Bless America’”? Obama laughed the question off, joking that his lack of vocal ability wouldn’t allow it.

Three days later, though, Obama concluded a speech in Pennsylvania by saying “God bless America.” The Chicago Tribune noted it was a departure from the norm, calling the closing “uncharacteristic.” For the candidate perhaps, but certainly not for U.S. politicians.

Whether Obama’s speech on March 18 and his explanations of his view on God and country (and race, it should be noted) will be sufficient to earn a passing grade on this crucial third test remains to be seen. But the fact that Obama—or any other candidate—must face such a test points to the deterioration of the American political environment.

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 a 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, the Bush family 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% 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.

Today it’s just more of the noise that passes for serious political matters.

David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. online source

Call me jaded… but I do not put much importance to any of these so-called tests. Instead these so-called tests raise some questions:

–A candidate can say and wear whatever they want– does that truly express their heart; or is it a political marketing scheme?
–When a candidate says that they are a “Christian,” just how is that candidate defining their Christian Faith?
–In the case of Barack Obama, if his name sounded Jewish, instead of Muslim, would there still be a “whisper campaign….”?
–What significance does wearing a ‘made in China’ American flag lapel pen have?
I have seen pictures of the KKK holding American flags– should I listen to them?
–What does a candidate mean when they say: “God bless America?” How is the candidate defining what God blessing America looks like, and at what cost to the citizens of the country… at what cost to the people of other countries?


4 Responses to ““God Bless America” and other political tricks”

  1. Mike Says:

    Ah, so this is what you were talking about. I wouldn’t call you, er, jaded…just prudently cynical. I think there is always a danger when political candidates shroud themselves in religiosity, or when religious groups pander to the politicians. What surprises me is how many people are taken in by it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen just here. The NY Times had an article last week about how Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church are using each other. This isn’t the first I’ve come across. It might be smart politics on Putin’s part, but I don’t think it is very smart on the part of the church, though getting the successor to the KGB to suppress Protestant churches and harass protestants might have some short term gains. Clearly, politicians pander to the various religious groups as a way of cultivating their support, and clearly religious groups (I can’t think of any that don’t) pander to politicians for access, leverage and power. It is all part of a vile game that only makes sense I suppose when you consider some of the alternatives. But it does make it hard for me to stomach politics and religion, I’m sorry to say.

    Have fun at Wolf Lodge.

  2. Marguerite Says:

    I think it’s another manifestation of the way our world has gone from wanting everything prepacked to now actually wanting it predigested. Finding out for oneself what Mr Obama (or Mr McCain) believes and assessing it in light of what we believe to be good and true ourselves (which we only learned from Oprah last week) is just too tedious for most people. The media want to stay in business so they give us what we want which is everything reduced to the lowest common denominator then pureed and dispensed through a straw. Symbols which haven’t had any meaning for 50 years are brought out like images of pagan gods to be worshipped by an ignorant populace and then shut away again for a year or five. No-one knows anything, no-one wants to know anything but still everyone wants to feel well-informed. The consequence is the absurdities you’ve listed above.

    I think if Obama’s name was Jewish there would be another kind of whispering. When Joseph Lieberman was up for vice-president there were people muttering that he might not be available for the big red phone call if he was keeping the sabbath because it was too boring to find out that invasion, along with preventing murder and incest, is justification for putting aside the sabbath to act. I also suspect were the name Russian there would be rumours and hoped for rumours about Stalinism in the family or some connection to the KGB and so on. Fill in the blanks for the name of your choice.

    On a happier note, it’s nice to read about your garden. Mine is a mess but I counted 36 dandelion flowers on the back lawn on Sunday and, according to a wildflower/herb nursery site I was reading, dandelions are the first thing bees look for when they come out of their hives in springtime and this being Scotland I’ve only been seeing bees for a couple of weeks

  3. libbie Says:

    first i want to say I am happy to see the blog up and going again.

    I personally hold no weight to these “test” as truly in the end they come down to one politician’s word. one thing my grandfather taught me was: this its not the man’s words that hold the weight but the actions that can before them and after that one should pay attention too.

    I feel more and more people vote without learning because its easier that way quicker that way. The vote for the candidate that shares their religion or who looks good on the TV. The one who can talk better buy more and wrap it all up in “things with be different with me” attitude.
    instead of really checking things out.
    we have become a lazy nation who see more interest in who should win american idol then who should lead this nation.

  4. Marguerite Says:

    American Idol just about sums it up, Libbie. Not sure what it would be here in the UK but something with useless “celebs” in it. My Russian step-grandfather used to stomp around saying things like “the world is too full of b***** useless arty types who should be forcibly sent out to dig ditches for their own good and the good of the whole world!” My mother laughed at him but now I suspect he was right.

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