… explore that phrase in the light of Scripture
By Lindy Scott
During the Obama-McCain presidential campaign, religion and politics surfaced in some intriguing new ways. While Obama, Hillary, and the other Democrats “got religion,” the Republican candidates included ex-Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, Mormon Mitt Romney, and the presumptive nominee Senator John McCain – who is much more reserved about his faith than Reagan, Bush I or Bush II.
Given the occasion of the USA´s 4th of July celebrations and the fact that many politicians end their speeches with “God bless America”  I would like to explore that phrase in the light of Scripture. What a common slogan! Politicians use it, bumper stickers promote it and many people sing it within and outside the walls of church buildings. Yet, is it biblical? Not in the literal sense that the phrase actually appears in Holy Scripture, but in a much more profound sense: “Does the phrase agree with the teaching of the Bible?”
Grammatically speaking, “God bless America” is not an affirmation. It is more like a wish or a prayer such as “May God bless America.” Given that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for sinners, it is possible that people are praying that God bless sinful America in spite of its sins. This would be in keeping with some passages such as Psalm 32:1-2a: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man (or woman) whose sin the Lord does not count against him/her” which was later quoted by the Apostle Paul (Romans 4:7-8).
Nevertheless, this is not how the phrase is usually used today. Most people mean that God generally agrees with the lifestyle, practices, and foreign policies of the United States. Many who use the “God bless America” statement would refuse to use it for other countries, especially those who we deem to be our enemies. Imagine how your neighbors would react if you put a bumper sticker or your car that affirmed “God bless Iran” or “God bless Cuba” or any other country that is perceived to be a national enemy.
The Bible is quite clear regarding humanity’s sinfulness: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 -NASB) Therefore, all humans and all nations have committed actions that fall far short of God’s righteous and just demands. God does not agree with any country’s practices in their entirety. As a consequence, the Bible is much more precise in its use of blessing and cursing. If we look at the way Jesus used “bless” and its opposite “woe,” we might become surprised. He identified individual people who practiced certain actions as being blessed or cursed.
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26), Jesus balances out four blessings with four woes. After pronouncing blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated and persecuted, Jesus condemns those on the opposite side of the spectrum.
- Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
- Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
- Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
- Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26 NIV)
At a literal level, (which the majority of exegetes believe is the correct way to interpret this passage), these woes should trouble our conscience. I live in the richest country the world has ever known. I, together with most of the citizens in the United States, are far wealthier than the “rich” addressed by Jesus. We all have more than two “tunics” in our closets.
The second woe is equally troublesome. Obesity is one of the most common diseases in our country where a significant percentage of our people are seriously overweight due to overeating. We spend billions of dollars per year on diets to try to lower our weight, without much success. The problem gets worse every year and with each succeeding generation.
The third woe speaks to our hedonistic tendencies where every movie and human life experience needs to have a “happy ending.” We seldom mourn over our sin or the evil in the world. We seldom confess our mistakes, and only do so when we get caught. Our culture has become increasingly more “tolerant” where even evil actions are justified or minimized.
The fourth woe suggests that the values of a society are upside down. What is considered wrong in the sight of God becomes values that our society cherishes. In the Middle Ages Pope Gregory the Great (and later Dante) identified the seven mortal sins as extravagance, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Most of these have become the moral virtues of our American way of life. Although we might pray that God would bless America, He has already stated that He does not agree with some of our most valued practices.
Jesus saved some of his most damning woes for the leaders, both religious and political, of his day. He pronounced woe upon the teachers of the law and the Pharisees no fewer than seven times in the 23rd chapter of Matthew. He denounced them as hypocrites because they gave the outward appearance of righteousness, but in fact they lacked justice, mercy, and faithfulness (v. 23). They were full of greed and self-indulgence (v. 25). Although previous leaders, like President Lincoln, were mature enough to admit our nation’s sins, it has been extremely difficult for our country, and especially our leaders, to admit mistakes.
Let us just take the issue of war, and for the sake of argument, let us assume that Just War Theory (JWT) is an adequate expression of Biblical ethics. During World War II the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was a clear violation of the JWT criterion of civilian immunity. We have never apologized for this national sin. To the contrary, we try to rationalize it by arguing that it saved thousands of lives. The current war in Iraq failed to meet all the major criteria of Just War Theory: just cause, just intentions, legitimate authority, last resort, etc. Nevertheless, our leaders have never admitted any moral failing in this invasion, and only grudgingly recognize a few, minor flaws in the implementation of our war strategy.
Jesus frequently taught about the reality of hell and the damnable end of many people. If Jesus was right when He said: “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it, but small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:14) then it is likely that the majority of North Americans will not be eternally blessed, in spite of our great religiosity, missionary fervor, and doctrinal orthodoxy.  I am quite tempted to place myself in the category of the few who are walking along the road of life, but I am becoming increasingly aware of the many ways that I fail our God. Sin is not a common topic these days in our churches or in our society, but it is all too prevalent in our lives.
It is fine and good to pray for the salvation and blessing of our nation (and of all the nations of the world). But we must not give the impression that God agrees with all that our country stands for. During election campaigns, and at all times, let us be faithful proclaimers of God’s word announcing the ethical demands of God’s Kingdom and abundant grace and forgiveness to all who repent and turn to our Lord, Savior and Brother Jesus.
 Using the word “America” to refer only to the United States is frequently perceived either as arrogance or as ignorance by many people who live in Canada or Latin America. What distinguished those who fought against Spain in the wars of independence was precisely the definition of the term “americanos”, that is, those who were born in America, whether it was Mexico, Argentina or Venezuela.
 A further analysis of this war in light of JWT can be found in the second chapter of René Padilla and Lindy Scott, Terrorism and the War in Iraq: A Christian Word from Latin America. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Kairós, 2004. Buy it at Amazon.com, here.