Driving cross-country in 1965, my family passed a large billboard in the Arizona desert. It read, “This sign don’t say nothin’.” We scratched our heads, but not so much as when, ten miles later, we passed another billboard that read, “This sign still don’t say nothin’.”
We have been at war in Iraq for almost three years now, and as the bumper stickers and yellow ribbon magnets fade, so does our collective understanding and confidence in what they mean. Like the billboard in the desert, they’re there for a purpose, but we’re not all sure what it is.
From the start, our patriotic sloganeering lacked specificity. There are two phrases we have abused into virtual meaninglessness, “Support Our Troops,” and “God bless America.”
Support our troops. At first we mostly assumed it was a moral imperative. If it meant more than that, it was a reminder to send the troops care packages, or phone cards. Then the words were appropriated by the anti-war folks. At peace rallies I saw signs that read, “Support Our Troops — Bring Them Home.”
When it became clear that our soldiers were sent into harm’s way in inadequately armored vehicles, I thought maybe “Support Our Troops” might mean we should write Congress, to implore them to do something about that.
At least “Support Our Troops” is an effort to communicate something, however malformed and misappropriated. It is “God Bless America” that stands as our greatest collective ambiguity. Believers in God are a majority in this country, but we have little commonality in terms of the nature of God, what His will is, and what His blessing of America means.
When we say “God Bless America,” do we wish God’s will for America, or do we wish God’s support for ours? Are we praying that God will grant us victory over our enemies, or for Him to forgive us, a nation of sinners? If God blesses America, will we be more prosperous, or just more godly?
What do the political issues of the day mean in light of “God Bless America?” Is Medicaid Part D God’s will? Is there a biblical foundation for denying health care and education to undocumented immigrant children?
When we see these slogans, “God Bless America” and “Support Our Troops,” our minds ought to be inflated with questions. So long as the bombs explode and the bullets fly, it is morally imperative that we continuously ask ourselves why. If we do not, we risk fighting today for yesterday’s reasons.
“When Iraq stands up, America will stand down.” It’s a nice, tight little phrase. It means nothing. As a definition for our criteria for withdrawal from Iraq, it is utterly vacuous. There are so many layers of tactical and strategic criteria for American retirement from Iraq that to infer there is a point where Iraq is up, so that we can stand down, is ludicrous.
Language matters. Specificity matters. When the subject is the nation’s agenda, specificity is critical. When the national strategy is defined in bumper sticker terms, we are at risk. Granted, being specific and nuanced is more difficult than speaking in sound bites. But it is in the effort to do so that true patriotism is forged. Consider “The Federalist Papers,” and how our early patriots struggled with ideas.
When we are specific, we expose ourselves to questions. We give opportunities to our critics to find flaws in our argument. So be it. That is how the strongest arguments are made. Successfully withstanding a close examination by one’s critics is the surest way to ensure a successful strategy.
Populist theologian Harold Kushner wrote that the three most religious words in the English language are “I don’t know.” The principle applies just as well to our national dialogue. Confidence is a virtue. Arrogance is a vice.
“God Bless America” is, or ought to be, the political equivalent of “I Don’t Know.” Whenever we see it, we should imagine a question mark after it. That’s no criticism. That’s a good thing. Let us be confident, but not arrogant. Only by constantly questioning whether our national behavior is what God may bless, is it likely that He will.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenage children. Chris can be contacted at email@example.com.