My entire life has been centered around the belief that God wants to bless America and that he is only waiting for us to ask.
Growing up as the daughter of a Southern black Baptist minister, my life was filled with church services, communion and prayer. I learned early how to get down on my knees at the end of every day and ask for forgiveness and ask God to bless my family and America. My dad is a veteran, having served during the Vietnam War, and he believed that we needed to remember that America was always primed to be attacked and that it was our prayers for her that kept her safe.
He was also raised in Jim Crow South Carolina and had been actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and he taught me that the America that we were asking God to bless was not the one that we saw in front of us, but it was the potential for what she could some day become. He said that when he would get arrested or spit upon or he was called the N-word, he would silently ask God to bless America despite the hatred and the inequality. When the Rev. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy were assassinated, he told me that the only thing that got him through those days was prayer and asking God over and over again to overlook the sins of this country and bless us anyway.
We lived in a small black community in Washington, D.C., where most of my teachers were members of my church and when they spoke, in my mind, they had the authority of God behind them. Every morning, from 1st to 8th grade, we had to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We were “under God,” we were “indivisible,” and we did provide “liberty and justice for all.” As a young child, it made sense to me. America was the center of the world, morally balanced and uniquely charged with the task of saving and protecting the planet.
In history class, my teachers buried us in stories of dead white men, the vaunted Christian forefathers, who worked hard to craft a more perfect union, without teaching us that they were racist, sexist, classist slave holders. We never talked about what or who was missing from these great American tales of courage and valor, never questioned the validity and reliability of these stories. We simply accepted them as the truth, praying for and pledging ourselves to a nation that denied our humanity, that fought a war to keep us enslaved, that set up laws to keep us separate and was comfortable lynching, beating and oppressing us.
I was 5 years old the first time a president ended a speech by calling on God to bless America. It was 1973, President Richard Nixon in the midst of dealing with the Watergate scandal and trying to cover up his lies, ended a speech by saying, “Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything I do throughout the days of my presidency. God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”
This was a watershed moment, when God entered the realm of politics and became both a shield and a weapon. As an American citizen, how do we begin to question the actions of our leaders when they invoke the name of God and call upon him to bless us? This phrase was not used again until Ronald Reagan, and since then every president, despite his actions, has called on God publicly to bless this country.
I know that God can, but I am wondering if he should. Should God bless America, a place where economic and social freedom only exist in the lives of a privileged few; a place where women and girls are routinely sexually assaulted; a place where black and brown people have to proclaim that their lives matter? A place where the current president is, by his own words and deeds, a bigot and a demagogue who tweets out hatred on a daily basis and whose election (America’s whitelash moment) ushered in a new age of divisiveness, racism, xenophobia and hatred — a man who ends every speech by calling on God to bless America?
By God’s own words, recorded in his holy Bible — where he calls on us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, to practice radical hospitality, to be the good Samaritan, to shoulder one another’s burdens, to welcome the prodigal children home, to be kind and gentle and long suffering and peaceful, and to be slow to anger and quick to listen — America is not a country that deserves his blessing.
But then I think of my father and remember that we pray not for the ossified, divided America that this country is at this moment, but for the possibility of what she can become. And so, I will continue to ask God to bless America, while also advocating every day to change her.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore's NPR station.