On page 291, of his 2013 book, Hollywood and Hitler, Thomas Doherty makes a small, but noteworthy statement about the song “God Bless America.” Written by Irving Berlin from an earlier tune called “Yip!, Yak!, Yaphank!”, “God Bless America” was to become an unofficial second national anthem.
“As the wave of antisemitic violence [during what was penned by journalists as Krystallnacht], in [Nazi Germany], was subsiding, the singer Kate Smith had long planned to dedicate her variety show program to the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, a solemn look back at the last war as the world stood on the brink of another. Smith asked Irving for a patriotic theme suitable for the occasion’[i]
Whilst it is right to describe “God Bless America” as a patriotic song, it’s not a stretch to say that it also fits well within the rubric of patriotic protest songs.
Cast in the light of his original intent, Berlin’s song is an anthem for peace. It rallies people of all races, around the banner of peace.
“God Bless America” is perhaps also the most significant musical push-back against the onslaught of mid-20th century Nazism, to come out of America during that pre-WW2 era.
Post-1939, into, America’s 1942 involvement in the war; first in the Pacific, then in the North African, and European theatres, this prayer for peace, while still holding its integrity, extended its meaning towards a prayer for freedom.To call on God’s blessing is to call on His grace and victory.
And if prayer is, as Karl Barth asserted ‘…the beginning of an uprising, [a revolt] against the disorder of the world’[ii]
Then “God Bless America” is a protest. It is an effective protest that draws people’s attention towards the great Other. Towards the God, who, in His Covenant with Israel, and it’s fulfilment in Jesus Christ, sets out to present Himself as the revolution against the disorder, that is set in play by false lords, false claims to authority, and all human versions of “ordering” the world, which takes place under those false claims, in total allegiance to those false lords*.
Irving’s lyrics join up with the voice of the Confessing Churches, who, in 1934, Barmen declaration, led by Karl Barth, declared that any proposition that suggests, or asserts that salvation could come through Hitler, or any human, outside of or abstracted from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, is false, and is, therefore, to be utterly rejected. This is because:
“Jesus is the one Word of God and the proper hearing of this Word takes place in trusting and obeying […] The one Word is the way upon which, and the door through which, God comes to us in his truth and in his life, comes as the light that overcomes the lie and as the resurrection that disempowers death”[iii]
There are no ways to God, there is only one way from God to us. Founded and expressed entirely through and in Jesus the Christ. No man, woman, leader, idea or natural organism can lay claim to this revelation that lays claim to all of humanity, without usurping God. It’s not something that can be moulded, crafted and raised in the name of human triumphalism.
Irving Berlin’s song declares that before nations and governments, there is no other Lord, but God.
As problematic as ambiguity and nationalism[iv] that is attached to the song, can be; at its inception, “God Bless America” was conceived as an anthem for peace. It was written at a time when the majority of Americans understood God as the one who makes Himself known in history, as testified to in the Christian Bible.
What “God Bless America” became was both a prayer and protest. It focuses, unites, humbles, and in combined song, rouses a challenge against all those who actively seek to do the opposite.
“God Bless America” is a song of defiance in the face of an adverse and overwhelming enemy. As a prayer, it becomes the anthem for revolt. Not just against an oppressor from without, but also from within; against the sinful nature of the flesh that exists within each of us, to which God has answered, not by the way of man’s religion, and feeble attempts to save himself, by way of the Cross of Jesus Christ.
In “God Bless America” both the Sh’ma Yisrael and The Lord’s Prayer are heard. If we lean in close enough, we’ll hear Irving, Kate, Barth, Roosevelt and the many others, who, in fox holes, camps and gas chambers, ‘prayed both'[v], we may hear them “whisper their legacy”[vi] to American and non-American alike.
I should point out that I’m not an American, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from joining in and singing the same kind of prayer and following the same kind of protest.
For “even the ‘devils believe and tremble,’ and I really believe they are more afraid of the Americans’ prayers than of their swords” (Abigail Adams, 1775, Letters #55)
[i] Doherty, T. 2013 Hollywood & Hitler: 1933-1939, Columbia University Press, p.291
[iii] Busch, E. 2010 The Barmen theses then and now: the 2004 Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids Michigan, U.S.A. pp.23 & 37
[v] Victor Frankl: we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.’ Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press. p. 134.
[vi] Robin Williams, 1989. The Dead Poets Society.
*According to an unverified source, the Klu Klux Klan, only with Pro-American Nazi’s are said to have boycotted the song. The only source I could find, so far, which mentions this, is parade.com: 6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Song ‘God Bless America’