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. They are authors of “The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America” (Oxford).