Happy 35th, 'God Bless America'

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Diana Walker / Time Life Pictures / Getty

Former U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan and wife Nancy hold their hands over their hearts during the playing of the National Anthem.

Thirty-five years ago today, something remarkable happened: A U.S. President concluded a major address with the words "God bless America." Today, that would not be a big deal. At the time, however, it was unprecedented. In fact, it was the first time in modern history that it had happened.

On the evening of April 30, 1973, Richard Nixon addressed the nation live from the Oval Office in an attempt to manage the growing Watergate scandal. It was a difficult speech for Nixon: He announced the resignations of three Administration officials, including Attorney General Richard Kleindienst — but Nixon nonetheless tried to sound optimistic. As he approached the end of his speech, Nixon noted that he had "exactly 1,361 days remaining" in his term and wanted them "to be the best days in America's history." "Tonight," he continued, "I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency." Then came the magic words: "God bless America and God bless each and every one of you."

The context was hardly an auspicious beginning for the phrase in the presidency, and it didn't immediately catch on. Gerald Ford eschewed it, as did Jimmy Carter. But not Ronald Reagan. Reagan made "God bless America" the omnipresent political slogan that it is today. He used the phrase to conclude his dramatic nomination acceptance address at the Republican Party convention in July 1980, and once in office, made it his standard sign-off. Presidents since Reagan have followed suit, and the shift in presidential rhetoric could hardly be more striking.

Watch Reagan wield God bless America at the 1980 convention

From the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 — which most observers view as the beginning of the modern presidency — to the end of Carter's term in January 1981, Presidents gave 229 major addresses. Nixon's use of "God bless America" was the only time the phrase passed a President's lips. In contrast, from Reagan's inauguration through the six-year mark of the current Bush Administration, Presidents gave 129 major speeches, yet they said "God bless America" (or the United States) 49 times. It's a pattern we unearthed in our book The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.

And it's not just these specific words that have entered the presidency with alarming regularity. Presidential requests for divine blessing or guidance, phrased in any fashion, also took off with 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.

Why the change? It's not that the past four Presidents were simply more pious than their predecessors. Few would doubt the honest faith of Dwight Eisenhower, or Johnson, or Carter. It's that "God bless America," true to its presidential birth on that April evening in 1973, has grown to be politically expedient. 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.

Used sparingly, the words "God bless America" would have to be taken as a serious theological proposition. Instead, like Nike's "Just Do It" or any other ubiquitous catchphrase in American culture, the words eventually lose their meaning. Today, "God bless America" has become the Pennsylvania Avenue equivalent to the taglines of Madison Avenue.

David Domke is Professor of Communication and head of the journalism program at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. They are authors of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. /www.thegodstrategy.com.