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Count Your Blessings

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By Michael Kinsley
Friday, January 26, 2001; 12:00 AM

When did they pass the constitutional amendment requiring every president and would-be president to end every speech with the words, "God bless you and God bless America"? Even a nonbeliever cannot reasonably object to the sentiment. If I turn out to be mistaken about the central question of the universe, I'll be happy enough that others were doing some celestial lobbying on my country's behalf. And if the words are pouring into an unhearing ether, there's no harm done.

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Furthermore, it seems to have worked, so far. But is even God starting to tire of the constant special pleading? This rhetorical sign-off is filtering down from major speeches by national leaders to everyday speeches by members of Congress to casual remarks by local officials. It's starting to be suspicious if a politician doesn't conclude a public statement this way. The missing phrase echoes loud. What's your problem, buddy? You don't want God to bless America?

And how do we even know that the practice is limited to public statements? One imagines the politician at home:

"Pass the salt, honey. God bless you and God bless America."

"More apple pie, Dear? God bless you and God bless America."

"May I be excused, please, Dad? God bless you."

"Just one moment, young lady. And? And?"

(Sigh.) "And God bless America."

"That's better. You're excused. God bless you and God bless America."

An unscientific romp through the databases tends to confirm that the great American tradition we had better refer to as GBY/GBA only recently acquired its status as the politicians' answer to "Have a nice day." ("Have a nice day, Senator." "God bless you and God bless America.") The outbreak is worse during election years, of course, and 2000 may have been a milestone. The Political Transcripts file of the Federal Document Clearing House shows 13 uses of GBY/GBA in 1996, eight in 1997, seven in 1998, 12 in 1999 (including, for example, a news conference on impeachment by Rep. Bob Barr) and 27 in 2000. This year has started out with five GBY/GBAs in just the first three weeks: two from President Bush, two from former president Clinton and one from Jesse Helms.

The broader Dow Jones Publications Library, tracking hundreds of media outlets around the world, shows 338 uses of the terms "God bless you" and "God bless America" (together) since the beginning of last year. This obviously includes some repetitions, and the database is larger for more recent years, but the historical comparison is nevertheless ominous. A search of the equivalent 13-month period in 1990-91 shows only 12 GBY/GBAs. And from January 1980 through January 1981, as far as the Dow Jones Publications Library is concerned, nobody uttered the magic words at all!

Is it possible, I wondered, that Ronald Reagan didn't end his inaugural addresses this way? Remarkably, Reagan's first inaugural speech, in 1981, ended with a relatively simple, "God bless you and thank you." His second, in 1985, signed off, "God bless you and may God bless America." Nevertheless, I suspect that emulation of the Great Communicator is responsible for this dubious tradition. Imagine if any president from now on tried to get off the swearing-in platform and start trying out all the buttons in the Oval Office without a GBY/GBA. The nation would proclaim in one voice, "Go back. You forgot to say, 'Mother, may I?' "

In another disturbing trend, God is being called on to bless you and then bless various individual states. The Dow Jones database coughs up 21 citations for "God bless you and God bless the state of . . .," plus other direct calls for blessings on "California" and other places self-confident enough to assume that God already knows they are states. There is no record of anybody ever saying, "God bless you and God bless the District of Columbia."

We seem to be the only country that goes in for this particular formula. A search in English through U.S.-based media collections has obvious limitations, but nothing turned up for "God bless you and God bless the United Kingdom" (or Britain or Great Britain or England) or "God bless France" or Russia or Serbia or India or China or Canada. "God bless you and God bless the European Community"? Zippo.

It's widely known that the United States is one of the most religious nations on earth. What GBY/GBA illustrates is that religion is becoming a larger part of our official public life, not a smaller one as many people puzzlingly insist. There's no need to be an ACLU hysteric about this. But it does, for example, make the complaints of some John Ashcroft supporters that he is a victim of the political culture's alleged antipathy to religion hard to take seriously.

And official promotion of religion -- even when it's not specific -- can reach a point where it infringes the rights of nonbelievers. President Bush has cut off family-planning funds for international organizations that finance abortions on the grounds that money given for one thing frees up money for the other. But he does not apply the same logic to his plans to subsidize church-based education. If a birth-control grant to some agency amounts to taxpayers funding abortions, why isn't a grant to a church school essentially forcing me to pay for candles and incense?

What?

Oh. Almost forgot. God bless you and God bless America.

kinsleym@washpost.com


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