How (and when) God arrived to bless America

Bill Dunn

Given that America is a Christian nation founded solely on Judeo-Christian principles (a false claim that Christians would have you believe), U.S. presidents have always ended their State of the Union speeches with "God bless America," right?

Wrong.

As noted by Robert Schlesinger, opinion editor of U.S. News and World Report (and son of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

George Washington gave the first address in 1790. Thomas Jefferson thought a speech in person too "kingly" and gave Congress written ones, as did the next 13 presidents until Woodrow Wilson, who revived the oral address. Franklin Roosevelt was the first to call it "The State of the Union."

None of them ended their speeches with "God bless America," nor did any president until Richard Nixon in a non-SOTU address from the Oval Office.

According to David Domke and Kevin Coe, the occasion was Nixon's address to the nation in the midst of the Watergate scandal on April 29, 1973. (Not until November did he say something most of us alive then will never forget: "People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got.")


He ended the April 29 speech with this: "Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency. God bless America and God bless each and every one of you."

In a 2008 Time magazine piece, Domke and Coe write that not only was there no "God bless America" in any State of the Union speech, but that Nixon's uttering it in 1973 was the only time it appeared in any of the 229 major presidential speeches from 1933 to January 1981, when Jimmy Carter left office. The men co-wrote The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (2007).

They say that the phrase and requests for divine guidance really took off with Ronald Reagan:

"Presidents from Roosevelt to Carter did sometimes conclude their addresses by seeking God's blessing, often using language such as 'May God give us wisdom' or 'With God's help.' But they didn't make a habit of it. In fact, five of the eight presidents during this period concluded this way in less than 30% of their speeches. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ford did so a bit more often, but still none of these presidents concluded even half of his addresses this way. Reagan, on the other hand, ended 90% of his major addresses by requesting divine guidance. George H.W. Bush also did so in 90% of his speeches, and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed suit 89% and 84% of the time, respectively."

Pandering to believers has become politically expedient, "the Pennsylvania Avenue equivalent to the taglines of Madison Avenue," Coe and Domke contend.

"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 SOTU speech Jan. 25? Yup.

"Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America."

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