God Bless America, Even Now

Tent City
The Trump Hotel in Tornillo, Texas. Just for kids, how fun! (Photo: Reuters)

Anyone else feeling a bit less gung-ho about our country these days? News of 4100 kids ripped from their parents’ arms, in our name and using our tax dollars, can have that effect.

It will help us, then, to pray on this Independence Day, and the best-known prayer in our country is arguably one penned by a Jew and made most famous by a Roman Catholic. I speak of “God Bless America,” written by the great American songwriter Irving Berlin and sung most memorably by Kate Smith.

At the Roosevelt Hotel, Manzanar, California. (Photo: Dorothea Lange)

Surprised that such an iconic American song, which has served over the decades as an informal secondary national anthem, is really a prayer? The lesser-known lyrics that precede the portion performed at patriotic celebrations and sporting events even say, “As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

Surprised that it’s not just a prayer, but an interfaith one at that?

Consider that Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin in czarist Russia, and that his devoutly religious family arrived here as refugees. (They were fleeing one of the many pogroms, or government-sanctioned mass ethnic murders, that wracked Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Consider also that Kate Smith, a Protestant at the time she first performed the song, began attending Roman Catholic mass just a couple of years later, following her father’s spiritual footsteps by formally converting to Catholicism in the 1960s.

Families aboard the MS St. Louis, preparing to depart Europe, in May 1939. Most of the 937 passengers were Jews fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Germany. After the U.S. and Canada denied them entry, they were taken back to Western Europe. 254 of them died in the Holocaust. (Photo: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee)

Let’s recall some of the song’s words:

God bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with the light from above.

And so, the song is a prayer to God, born out of our diversity, that He would bless our country. In particular, the blessing sought is not financial wealth or military supremacy, but that He would “stand beside her,” guiding her “through the night with the light from above.”

And oh, how we are living through one of America’s darker nights. And we desperately need “light from above,” mercy and wisdom from God, to get through these Trump years, as well as the years it will take to heal from them.

Please, God, bless America. We desperately need it.

Mural in a Brownsville, Texas, detention center. (Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)