We have always been a moral and religious people — and evidently we are becoming more so, according to a January 2006 poll conducted by the Barna Research Group. The percentage of the United States that can be classified by their beliefs as “born again” (not self-identifying by that phrase) has risen in the last two decades from 31 percent to 45 percent.
As one of the primary contributors to our founding documents and our second U.S. president, John Adams, cautioned, our government is wholly inadequate for a people who are not moral and religious. America was a new and exciting experiment combining Enlightenment theories of self-government with Judeo-Christian values. The degree of liberty Americans have enjoyed is dependent on a government that treads lightly. A government can tread lightly without inviting chaos and license only in a society where the majority of the people obey the law voluntarily, not simply from fear of punishment, but because they are acutely aware of their accountability to a transcendent moral order for the way in which they live their lives.
Not just our social fabric is at stake in what God’s got to do with America, therefore; our liberty is as well. If we were to reach a point at which most Americans no longer believed in a transcendent moral order and did not feel an internal obligation to do the right thing even when no one was watching, the consequence would be chaos, reduced liberty, or both. Forced to choose, most people would opt for order over chaos, even at the loss of significant liberty.
When Christians say, “God bless America,” they understand there is a connection between personal responsibility and faithfulness to God and the experience of divine blessing. This connection is explicit in God’s promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” This promise originally applied to the believers in Israel but now applies to believers wherever they reside. It is not exclusive to Americans—it could apply to believers in England, Germany, Korea, Japan, Brazil, Guatemala, Mozambique, South Africa, or anywhere else.
I believe that if America is exceptional, it is not because we made it that way. It is because we experienced God’s undeserved blessings upon this nation. This is a doctrine of obligation, responsibility, sacrifice, and service — not of pride, privilege, and prejudice — and it is founded on a very basic spiritual and biblical principle: to whom much is given, much is required. God’s blessing is always grace — that is what makes it a blessing, not a reward.
When we say, “God bless America,” we are asking God to treat our nation better than we deserve, even if we do repent and seek His face. If enough Americans respond in this way, we could reach a divine tipping point of heal-the-land blessing.
We can affirm the “God bless” portion of the phrase, therefore, as a way of reclaiming what historically has been best about our country and as a way of making sure that we carry it forward to define our future in new and more promising ways. It is a way of honoring Lincoln’s eloquent warning, lest we forget “the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us,” and lest we “vainly imagine, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.”
But what of the “America” we ask God to bless — is it a piece of geography, a parcel of real estate, a designated territory on a map? Or is it an idea, a belief, a creed, an understanding of humanity that we believe comes from God? It doesn’t have so much to do with racial or ethnic heritage or the amount of time we have spent in a particular place as it does with affirmation of a particular credo and set of beliefs.
So when we say, “God bless America,” we are not just saying, God bless this nation of people who inhabit this geographical territory. We are saying, God bless and spread the idea of America, so that all people — Arab, Jew, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, African — can live in the equality and human dignity and freedom to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them. We are reciting, together, a prayer, a hope, a dream, a vision—that all men and women yearning to breathe freely may live in the liberty and equality that are their God-given birthrights — not just here, but everywhere.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.