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'God Bless America' In Presidential Speeches Has A Little-Known, Uncomfortable Beginning

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"God bless America" has become the expected way for U.S. presidents to end official speeches. But that wasn't always the case, explain David Domke and Kevin Coe, authors of the book The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.

The first president to say it was Richard Nixon, who dropped the phrase during an attempt at damage control for the burgeoning Watergate scandal on April 30, 1973. "Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything I do throughout the days of my presidency," he said. "God bless America and God bless each and every one of you."

The phrase didn't catch on during the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter years, but Ronald Reagan's presidency definitively ushered in the era of "God bless America." Reagan used the line when accepting the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1980, and made it his standard sign-off once in the White House. Since then, it's become a standard part of the language of the American presidency.

Domke and Coe note that out of the 229 major Presidential speeches from the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to the end of Carter's term in 1981, Nixon's use of "God bless America" was the only the time a president used the phrase publicly. In contrast, from the inauguration of Reagan in 1981 to the Bush administration in 2008, 49 out of 129 major presidential addresses used the line.

Are modern presidents simply more religious than their predecessors? Domke and Coe don't think so, writing:

It's that "God bless America," true to its presidential birth on that April evening in 1973, has grown to be politically expedient. 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.

How did Barack Obama end his 2013 State of the Union? It's not difficult to guess -- "God bless you, and God bless these United States of America."

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