Irving Berlin was the master of writing songs with lyrics vague enough to become universal, and “God Bless America” may represent the pinnacle of this art. The lack of specificity in the song’s lyrics has allowed the song to embody multiple, sometimes contrary, points of view, with shifting meanings that depend upon who is singing and listening as well as upon the context of any given performance. Who is the “I” in “land that I love”? Who claims America as “my home sweet home”? What hardship is signified by “the night,” and in what direction does the country need to be guided? Whose god is being invoked?
In February 1991, during the final weeks of the first Iraq war, a man stood up to protest the war at the First Congregational Church in Kennebunkport, Maine, where President George H. W. Bush was in attendance. As he spoke, members of the congregation tried to drown out the protest by singing “God Bless America.” This church confrontation is an example of the song’s use as a means to silence dissent, becoming a virtual anthem for those who wanted things to stay exactly as they were.
But “God Bless America” didn’t always have such connections to conservatism. Just after its debut in 1938, the song was weighted with a subtext of religious, ethnic, and racial tolerance, as Irving Berlin’s immigrant success story connected the song to a burgeoning public appeal for ethnic and racial tolerance during the 1940s. And during the 1940 presidential campaign, both FDR and his Republican challenger Wendell Willkie adopted “God Bless America”—then at the height of its prewar popularity—as campaign theme songs. This bipartisan use followed the wishes of Irving Berlin, who wrote in July 1940, “no political party has the exclusive rights to the song ‘God Bless America.’ ”
The chameleon-like lyrics of “God Bless America” made it a powerful vehicle for a wide range of meanings during the 25 years after its debut. In its early years, the most common use of “God Bless America” within protest contexts served an anti-Communist message, likely drawing on the song’s invocation of religion and patriotism as a symbolic weapon against “Godless Communism.” A group of teenagers sang it to disrupt a Communist meeting in a downtown Milwaukee park in 1941, and in 1947 war veterans broke up a Communist party rally in Bridgeport by singing it. But “God Bless America” was also embraced as a protest song on the left during this period, sung by striking garment workers in Brooklyn in 1941, and by subway workers protesting a lockout in 1956. Civil rights activists also used the song frequently in the early 1960s. Within a two-day period in early summer 1963, young African-American students sang “God Bless America” at school segregation protests in Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., hinting, perhaps, at a strategic, unified use of the song by the movement. After all, what could be threatening about schoolchildren, some as young as nine, peacefully singing that staple of elementary school music programs, declaring their love for God and country in support of their right to an equal education?
“God Bless America” seems to have come into its own as a conservative anthem in response to the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At a “Read-in for Peace in Vietnam” at New York’s Town Hall in February 1966, a police detective was booed off the stage after seizing the microphone and trying to sing “God Bless America.” The song became a staple at pro-war rallies, and was often used as a sonic weapon in conflicts with anti-war protestors, such as a confrontation in 1973 between pro-war construction workers and peace rally participants in which a “pro-Administration crowd sang ‘God Bless America’ at an antiwar group who confronted them with peace signs.”
These changes in the uses of “God Bless America” over time point to larger shifts in the discourse of patriotism. During World War II, the song was used on the home front to represent American domestic values of tolerance and inclusion in the face of Nazi totalitarianism. But within the context of the Vietnam War, the song’s use was linked with a claim to the virtue of America’s conduct in the world at large, a claim that progressives could not support. Those opposed to the war could not “bless” America’s violence in Vietnam, and this shame over the country’s conduct meant that the language of patriotism was increasingly ceded to a conservative point of view.
The generational rifts that became so apparent in the 1960s, with the rise of a youth culture increasingly disenchanted with the mores of its elders, also influenced the shifting meanings of “God Bless America.” For older Americans, this song was likely tinged with nostalgia, invoking memories of Kate Smith and the cozy shared community of radio, for the united sacrifice of the World War II home front, and perhaps for a musical world dominated by Tin Pan Alley, rather than the alien sounds of rock ’n’ roll. For those born after World War II, “God Bless America” was likely a song they were forced to sing in elementary school, or one they heard on one of their parents’ corny TV shows, devoid of any cultural meaning other than its simple patriotic religiosity and the bland mainstream that the youth of the 1960s rebelled against.
Richard Nixon, who was swept into office by conservatives reacting against the 1960s counterculture, made regular political use of “God Bless America.” He inserted the phrase into his speeches on several occasions, but late in his presidency he began to sing the song himself, sometimes accompanying himself on the piano. In May 1973, Nixon and Irving Berlin led the crowd in singing “God Bless America” at a state dinner for POWs recently returned from Vietnam. At a White House dinner in March 1974, “God Bless America” was among the songs sung by Pearl Bailey, accompanied by the president on the piano. That same month, Nixon played the piano and sang at the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. Nixon’s forays into musical performance just four months before his resignation were likely meant to distract the country from the escalating Watergate scandal, but for some they had the opposite effect. Russell Baker derided the “clownishness of this public straining to play the nice guy,” and there is certainly something contrived about the president’s public piano recitals and their accompanying media coverage during that fraught political climate. But Nixon’s performances effectively cemented the relationship between the song “God Bless America” and conservative politics, which continued with Reagan’s presidency.
In The God Strategy, an account of the incorporation of religion into 20th- and 21st-century American politics, David Domke and Kevin Coe argue that it was Ronald Reagan who first made the intertwining of politics and religion a political imperative, and he made copious use of both the song and phrase “God Bless America” at campaign rallies and presidential events. It is a satisfying and intriguing coincidence that Reagan, who would become so strongly associated with “God Bless America,” was the star of the 1943 film This Is the Army, in which the song made its movie debut—in fact, Reagan first appears on screen while the song is playing, during a reenactment of Kate Smith’s premiere of the song on her radio show.
When FDR adopted “God Bless America” as his 1940 campaign song, it represented an embrace of cultural and religious tolerance; by 1980, the Christian Right used the song to signal an incorporation of faith and values into politics. At a 1984 meeting of religious broadcasters at which Reagan appeared, attendees “virtually serenaded” the president with “God Bless America,” and the singer and conservative icon Pat Boone boomed through the microphone, “How wonderful to have a President who believes these words.” The words may have remained the same, but the meaning of “God Bless America” has drifted rightward over the course of the twentieth century.
Sheryl Kaskowitz is a writer for Slate.