"God Bless America!"
I stared at the big block letters etched into the layers of grime, usually reserved for the mundane "wash me" message, on the back of a tractor-trailer I was following on the highway. Someone believed in those words so deeply that they took the time to laboriously hand-etch the letters, big enough to be read by passing motorists in all lanes.
That phrase has littered our political landscape since President Ronald Reagan made it a mainstay in his speeches. The uttering of the phrase has even become a political test of sorts, used by both Republicans and Democrats to prove they are down with the Big Man Upstairs.
In this last election cycle the idea of God blessing -- or not blessing -- America was a staple of Republicans and Tea Partiers. Many issued dire warnings about how America has turned its back on God and endangered our "chosen nation" status by embracing all manner of social ills like same-sex marriage, abortion and government control of social programs like Social Security and Medicare.
In Nevada, it was Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle who told a church audience in Gardnerville on Oct. 10 that America has "walked further and further away from the precious promises of God as a nation, as we have walked further and further away from his teachings about our own duty as Christians, we find our nation in a terrible fix."
Angle may have lost her bid for the Senate, but her view lives on in the form of those who remain in power like U.S. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Jeff Sharlet writes that DeMint believes America should develop "a leadership led by God" instead of by government.
"People are seeing this massive government growing and they're realizing that it's the government that's hurting us. And I think they're turning back to God in effect is our salvation and government is not our salvation and in fact more and more people see government as the problem, and so I think some have been drawn in over the years to a dependency relationship with government, and as the Bible says, you can't have two masters."
Clearly, Angle and DeMint, along with many other evangelicals, juxtapose freedom and God -- but only an American style of freedom, where wealth and military might is closest to the heart of God. In his book American Evangelism, Christian Smith writes that, by positing that America is a "Christian nation," evangelicals believe that America's freedom and prosperity can be directly traced to its "open commitment to its Judeo-Christian heritage ... America is thought to have become great because it was founded on Christian principles, recognized God's laws, and fostered a Christian-based culture."
Our dismal economy, and the end of our seemingly bottomless prosperity, is seen as God's punishment for not toeing God's moral line. To get back to God they feel they must "take back the country" and obliterate any form of social progress they believe God doesn't like.
But, we have not turned our back on God. Instead, it is God who has turned away from America -- and it's not a recent occurrence. God forsook America a long time ago because our ideas of blessings are all upside down. We see money, wealth and power as blessings from God, when in reality they have very little to do with God and everything to do with a human "will to power."
Most evangelical Christians today are described perfectly by Meister Eckhart, who said about 700 years ago: "Some want to see God with their own eyes, just as they see a cow; and they want to love God just as they love a cow. You love a cow because of the milk and cheese and because of your own advantage. This is how all these people act who love God because of external riches or because of internal consolation. They do not love God rightly; rather they love their own advantage."
The "God bless America" crowd, instead of actually revering God, create what theologian Karl Barth, in his book, The Epistle to the Romans, called the "No-God" where "fetishism is bound to appear in which God is experienced in birds and four-footed things, and finally, or rather primarily, in the likeness of corruptible man ... in the half-spiritual, half-material creations, exhibitions, and representations of His creative ability -- Family, Nation, State, Church and Fatherland." America worships many No-Gods including military might, money and capitalism, "family values," "the war on terrorism," and most especially its state form of piety clothed in evangelical Christianity.
The lumping together of Christianity with the "blessed" social order and setting it up as the arbiter of human freedom within history proves Barth right. We put ourselves in the driver's seat and order God to do our bidding. In this way, Barth said, we create a "criminal arrogance of religion" that equates our own desires with the desires of God -- and leads to an inverted set of values. The "blessed" accumulate tangible, material goods. Those who are poor, disenfranchised, homeless or ill are definitely not blessed, and are to be viewed as morally suspect since they must have done something "wrong" to deserve such a horrible fate.
Jesus never mentioned material wealth when he talked about blessings. In Matthew 5:3-11, Jesus said those who are blessed are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
The United States, as a nation, does not possess any of these qualities of blessedness. We are a rich nation, where the meek, the hungry and the peacemakers are marginalized, not just in society but church as well.
Until we know and acknowledge that we are all connected in this world, then we will continue to create No-Gods of nation, family, military and capitalism and set them up as evidence of our blessings from God. In reality, our freedom is not found in the social order, but in the acknowledgment that God is not on our side, or on anyone's side.
Instead, God is the source of all -- the ground of all being -- that flows without regard to race, color, creed, sexual orientation, nationality, wealth, poverty, piety or morality. God blesses us -- as a nation and as individuals -- when we realize we cannot simply live only for ourselves or for our nation, but for God and for each other.