'God Bless America' Celebrates Anniversary; Many More to Come

As religion and issues of faith become more important than ever in the decision that voters will make in the upcoming presidential election, it's hard to imagine that it was just 35 years ago that a sitting president used the words "God Bless America" for the first time ever during an address.

In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate scandal that shook the nation, President Richard Nixon spoke to citizens in a television address of the importance for the country to look forward.

"I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency," he said.

The historic words then immediately followed.

"God bless America and God bless each and every one of you," he said.

According to authors David Domke, professor of Communication and head of the journalism program at the University of Washington, and Kevin Coe, doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois, in their new book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, the words "God Bless America" have become a political phenomenon documented only since the Nixon presidency.

Since the beginning of what historians often refer to as the "modern presidency" – the election of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 – general phrases along the lines of "May God give us wisdom" or "With God's help" could be heard sprinkled throughout speeches, according to the authors, but with a frequency of no more than 30 percent.

Not until the Nixon presidency were the words "God Bless America" uttered for the first time, allowing for the phrase to gradually become staple vocabulary among presidents.

During the Ford and Carter administrations, the phrase began to stick, before finally reaching its full zenith when President Ronald Reagan used it during the conclusion of his 1980 speech at the Republican National Convention.

According to the authors, "God Bless America" subsequently went on to become a characteristic trademark of the Reagan presidency as the phrase entered the president's speech lexicon 90 percent of the time, and thereafter continuing to be uttered over 80 percent of the time during the George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush presidencies.

While many possible reasons may explain the increase in references to God among presidents, the authors, in a recent Time magazine article, explained the new phenomenon as part of a public re-emergence of what has long been an American faith-based tradition.

"The phrase is a simple way for presidents and politicians of all stripes to pass the God and Country test; to sate the appetites of those in the public and press corps who want assurance that this person is a real, God-fearing American. It's the verbal equivalent of donning an American flag lapel pin: few notice if you do it, but many notice if you don't," the authors explain.

Regardless of the reasons, "God Bless America" will no doubt continue to be heard throughout presidential races and speeches for years to come.