Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Hello. I’m a fan of your page and I’ve have enjoyed your advice and opinion. I’ll be brief. I have a question.
Today is 9/11. It is an event that helped me become cured of religion. I love my country. How can I respond to the words “God Bless America” when uttered in the context of 9/11 remembrance? More importantly, what can I say that expresses the equivalent sentiment without attributing God.
I feel a bit silly saying “Yes. All the best for America!”
This is important to me as I am a veteran and lost a friend on 9/11. I want to honor those lost by NOT encouraging further religious conviction and fanaticism of the type that led to the deaths of so many. I’m patriotic but never abandon reason, as patriotism can be as terrible as religion. 9/11 seems to be a day where zealots, fanatics, and ultra-patriots seem to come out of the woodwork.
Thanks for your time.
Many years ago I would buy something at a store, and as I received my change the cashier would say “Thank you.” Even if he or she had been trained to say that to every customer, it was simple, it made sense, and it felt right. At the higher end stores the cashier might say “Thank you for shopping at (So-in-so’s). That definitely sounded rehearsed and obligated by the store management, but at least it still made sense.
Then one day many years ago, as I received my change the cashier said “Thank you, and have a nice day.” I was visibly taken aback. That made no sense to me. “Have a nice day”?? I’d never heard such a well-wish. It was contrived and artificial. This stranger knew nothing about me and had no idea what I was facing in my day. I could be buying goodies for a picnic or a tie for a funeral. Very quickly, this fad spread to almost every retail store in the country. Employees were required by their bosses to say it, and soon it was expected by the customer. This slightly absurd well-wish had become ubiquitous, completely obligatory, and because of that, completely meaningless. Today, we hear it so much that we pay no attention.
Our social interactions are full of such not-really-meant-and-not-listened-to phrases. Of the thousands of times I’ve heard “How do you do,” I can count on one hand when it was an earnest question of how my doings are being done.
I also remember a time when “God bless America” was not said at the end of every political speech. One early use was by Richard Nixon about 37 years ago in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Ford and Carter avoided it, but Ronald Reagan, courting the religious right, revived and popularized it. Since then, just like “Have a nice day,” it has become so ubiquitous, so expected, so obligatory that it is essentially meaningless. It is only noticed if a statesman leaves it out. Like the cashier, he gets in trouble only if he neglects to say it.
Of course, it carries a different weight depending on who says it. It had a scary literalness coming from George W. Bush, but it passes harmlessly through me like “Have a nice day” when Barack Obama tacks it on like the superfluous words “The End” at the end of a movie.
This is how many religious things seem go extinct, and how perhaps religion itself will some day disappear, gradually fading into the background of obligatory social expectations, losing its heartfelt meaning, and eventually being discarded without any notice. In Europe, many people treat religious expression or religion in general with a disinterest that would be expressed by the American phrase, “Yeah, whatever.”
But hearing “God bless America” attached to 9/11 disturbs you, Mitchell, and I don’t minimize or dismiss that. Given the loss of your friend, your service to our country and your personal views, that is very understandable. As it was for you, 9/11 was the end of my patience with religion. I think that mayhem is the eventual, inevitable outcome of organized superstition. The bitter irony of evoking a god when mourning that atrocity is not lost on us. Like you, I love my country and I love the principles that we struggle, and too often fail, to live up to. I’m grateful to people like you who put themselves on the line to give us another chance to realize those principles.
So hearing that obligatory, clichéd invocation sometimes disturbs me too. Depending on the context and who’s saying it, I have to decide to either bite my tongue or blurt out, “Belief in gods is what flew those fanatics into the towers!” Because I’m a prudent and patient person, my tongue is often sore.
But instead of those extremes, you want a counterpoint to respond to “God bless America.” Actually, I think your “All the best for America!” is pretty good. It’s to the point and its deity-neutral. It only sounds odd because it’s new. Keep saying it and it will become familiar. Maybe it will catch on, become popular, and eventually it will become expected, …and obligatory, …and ……meaningless. Then we’ll have to come up with something new.
I have some other suggestions, in no particular order, that I just dreamed up. They’re not particularly clever, they’re not meant to be. Just simple, heartfelt and to the point. Some may be appealing to you or the readers here, and some may fall flat. If so, hopefully people can suggest better ones.
May reason prevail.
Liberty and justice for all.
May America live up to its ideals.
Let’s all work for peace.
May we heal everyone’s wounds.
Freedom! Equality! Compassion! Honesty!
Today is 9/13. Another anniversary of that dreadful turning point of history has come and gone. Since then and from now on, every day is a turning point. We have the choice to make today, …and today, …and today, a turning point toward the light of reason, tolerance and forgiveness, or a turning point toward the darkness of fear, hatred and more of what brought those towers down. Every day I choose to shrug off the discouragement and antagonism that accumulates on my shoulders when I read the news, and to keep adding my small voice to the growing chorus of rationalism, positivism, and optimism. And because I do that, my day is nicer than it would otherwise be.
And so Mitchell, with heartfelt sincerity and with the earnest meaning I’ve alluded to here, I hope you have a nice day.