Faith

Note to Atheists: A Politician Saying 'God Bless America' Harms No One

It’s time to answer militant atheists.

Last week’s New York Times Sunday Review published a piece by Susan Jacoby called “Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America.’” The main point was to argue that political candidates should cater more to one of the most rapidly growing demographic groups in the United States, namely the 36 million “who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group.”

In terms of arithmetic, she has a point: The 22.8 percent of Americans who belong to no church (although some of them may still call themselves faithful) barely trail all branches of evangelical Protestantism put together and exceed all other faith groupings, including Catholics.

But what is striking about the essay, and indeed about so much that we hear and see from agnostics and atheists, is the degree of outright hostility they have against religion, against faith, and seemingly against those Americans who do have faith.

Politicians, she writes, have an “obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion,” and are described as “pandering” to the faithful while they often “insult secular values,” and Americans fail to protest when foreign powers engage in “persecution of freethinkers and atheists.” And she is bothered, she says, by the habit of political speeches ending with the phrase “God bless America.”

And, really, this is mild, compared to some of the other attitudes so often expressed from the ranks of the irreligious.

Here’s what rankles. It’s one thing to say that politicians shouldn’t necessarily assume that everybody is a believer, and should perhaps find ways to sound more inclusive. It’s quite another thing to assert that faith-based language and/or faith itself are somehow an imposition on or an insult to—much less a violation of—the rights of secular Americans. To make this assertion is to evince not just a civil disagreement with the faithful, but also a hostility toward us. It shows an ignorance of the real meaning and the intentions of faith-related language and people of faith.

If you don’t believe in God, it shouldn’t matter to you, one way or another, if somebody says “God bless America.” It asks nothing of you; it puts no burden on you; it requires no assent from you. And if you are agnostic rather than atheist, it should actually offer comfort: If there is no God, well, no harm has been done; but if there is a God (which your agnosticism allows as a possibility), well, it should be good to have His blessing.

What militant anti-religionists miss is that an invocation of the Almighty, as an appeal to the good, can do no harm (in and of itself) to those who think no God exists. To take offense at such an invocation makes no more sense than it would to be offended when somebody says “have a good day.”

There is much more to be said, much more than can be said in one short reflection, about a war between the faithless and the faithful (who generally don’t even consider themselves to be in a war). Where the militantly faithless see an assault on them, the faithful rightly say that one man’s mere expression of faith, and his insistence that he be allowed to practice it without forcing anyone else to do so, has nothing to do, good or ill, with those who do not share that faith.

So, yes, may God bless America. And may He also bless Susan Jacoby, whether she wants the blessing or not.

Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.