Those lyrics have a storied history — one deeply entwined with America’s ever-uneasy relationship between religion and politics.
The song was written by an immigrant. Irving Berlin arrived in New York at 5 as Israel Baline, the son of a cantor fleeing persecution of the Jews of Russia. During World War I, Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” The title was a phrase his immigrant mother fervently repeated during Berlin’s childhood, his daughter later said.
Berlin decided to cut the song from the revue he wrote it for initially. It did not debut on the radio for another 20 years.
When it did, the backlash began almost immediately. A Jewish immigrant, critics said, should not get to celebrate this country as his. (Not to mention celebrating Christian holidays: Berlin wrote “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade,” among his massive catalogue of popular hits.)
In the newsletter of an American pro-Nazi organization, one writer expressed this vehement attitude in 1940: “[I do] not consider G-B-A a ‘patriotic’ song, in the sense of expressing the real American attitude toward his country, but consider that it smacks of the ‘How glad I am’ attitude of the refugee horde of which Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘We wish no further additions to the persons whose affection for this country is merely a species of pawnbroker patriotism — whose coming here represents nothing but the purpose to change one feeding trough for another feeding trough.'”
Others rejected Berlin’s optimistic theology in a song he himself called a prayer. Woody Guthrie began writing “This Land Is Your Land” as a parody criticizing “God Bless America” for overlooking America’s flaws. Guthrie’s original title for his song was “God Blessed America for Me.” One of the lesser-known verses of his now-famous folk song goes: “One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple/By the Relief Office, I saw my people./As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering/If God blessed America for me.”
As America’s entrance into World War II drew nearer, the country embraced Berlin’s song. It was played at both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1940, and every Brooklyn Dodgers game that year.
The song became an anthem of an array of causes. Striking garment workers and protesting subway workers sang “God Bless America” in the 1940s and ’50s. Students protesting racial segregation in Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1960s sang it. The antiabortion movement adopted the song in the 1980s.
By the 1970s, the widely employed “God Bless America” was taking on a conservative association that it retains to this day. Sheryl Kaskowitz writes in her book “God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song,” that the deep social division over the Vietnam War marked a turning point for Berlin’s melody.
“The song became a staple at pro-war rallies, and was often used as a sonic weapon in conflicts with anti-war protesters,” she writes. “If conservatives can be understood as revolutionaries reacting against the progressive social change movements of the 1960s, then ‘God Bless America’ was their ‘We Shall Overcome,’ used by activists expressing opposition to progressive social movements like school integration, women’s rights, and abortion.”
President Richard M. Nixon, who represented those conservatives rejecting social movements of the 1960s, frequently referenced the song and even sang it at a state dinner alongside Berlin himself, who died at 101 in 1989. President Ronald Reagan, the first embraced by the new religious right, did not just play the religious-patriotic song at his rallies. In his prior career as an actor, he starred in the 1943 movie “This Is the Army,” which was the first film to feature the song.
Others who have embraced and popularized the song continue to include, like Berlin, immigrants and admirers of this country who were not born in America. Among the most memorable renditions of the song in recent decades was Celine Dion’s version, recorded for a fundraiser album that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Although she is Canadian, Dion sings a soulful “God Bless America.”
When Hispanic singer Marc Anthony performed the song at the 2013 baseball All-Star Game, racists attacked his performance, tweeting slurs including, “C’mon MLB. How you gonna pick a Mexican to sing ‘God Bless America’?” and much more. Anthony is Puerto Rican — meaning he is American.
In other words, a century after the song was written, we are still fighting about who is entitled to proclaim blessings upon the “land that I love,” and “my home sweet home.” Berlin might answer: anyone who knows the words.