Ask Richard: Loving His Country and Looking for an Alternative to “God Bless America”

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Richard,

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.

Sincerely,
Mitchell

Dear Mitchell,

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://www.edmangoodrich.com Edman

    “England Prevails!”

    I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it.

  • http://discordianzen.com dylan

    “All the best for America!”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “Land of the free”
    would be a brief rejoinder which should not require explanation.

  • Greg

    I too strive to excise even the meaningless and trite references to god/jesus from my language, and have been looking for a God-free way to express my patriotism and best wishes for America.

    I’m a big big fan of “All the best for America” and will begin using it immediately.

  • TychaBrahe

    I would think, as you are a veteran, that the logical response to any praise for our nation, would be “Oorah!”

  • Aaron

    America, Fuck Yeah!

  • JB Tait

    When they give you a meaningless “Have a nice day,” you can respond, “Sorry, I have other plans.”

  • Steve

    Americanisms such as “Have a nice day” are slowly making their presence felt here in the UK.It does sound rehearsed, we do tend to regard ourselves as reserved people, maybe that’s our charm?

    As for our national anthem, it’s all about God saving the monarch of the day, no mention of our country!! I’m as patriotic as the next person but that is one song I will never sing! What a dirge!!
    Yes, religion in the UK and Europe is regarded with a cynical eye, then again we’ve got the Pope coming on Thursday, cue “mass” hysteria!! Just waiting for all the protests that this mortal man has to look forward to!!

  • mike

    I’m fond of “Zeus Bless America”

  • Kevin S.

    Aaron wins the thread.

  • Luther

    When they sing God Bless America, I sing and hear Godless America. I think Dan Barker has the whole song but just singing and hearing Godless America makes it a nice day for me!!!

  • sadpanda

    America: One Nation, Indivisible.

  • Stephen P

    As for our national anthem, it’s all about God saving the monarch of the day, no mention of our country!! I’m as patriotic as the next person but that is one song I will never sing! What a dirge!!

    Yes, that’s one area where the French have the Brits well and truly beaten.

    It could be worse however. Take the utterly bizarre Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus. The tune is as boring as “God Save the Queen”. And it also talks about honouring the king … of Spain. Yes, you read that right. The national anthem of the Netherlands honours the king of Spain. (If anyone has an emoticon strange enough to put here, I’d be interested to see it.)

  • http://thescythe.org Scythe

    Try this one:

    E Pluribus Unum.

    It doesn’t have the same meaning, but quite frankly everything you say in Latin seems profound. Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur.

    Also, “E Pluribus Unum” is a patriotic phrase in it’s own right. Until the 1954 “In God We Trust” motto was adopted, E Pluribus Unum was our unofficial national motto, and it is part of the Great Seal of the United States adopted in 1782. It’s in the scroll held in the eagles beak.

    Also, “God Bless America” has a divisive ring to it for some of us, whereas E Pluribus Unum is an explicit assertion of unity; It translates as “from many, one”.

    So say it loud and say it proud. It’s patriotic and unifying.

  • bgaesop

    >(If anyone has an emoticon strange enough to put here, I’d be interested to see it.)

    http://www.emotty.com/images/emoticons/1093.png

    >This is important to me as I am a veteran… I’m patriotic but never abandon reason, as patriotism can be as terrible as religion.

    One of these things is not like the other

  • Maury

    “Long Live America”

    Has the same syllables as God Bless America, so it would be pretty easy to start substituting it and nobody can argue with the sentiment.

  • Ron in Houston

    In my view “patriotism” and patriotic songs should be relegated to the same trash heap as religion and religious songs.

    People who make sacrifices for the benefit of our society deserve whatever praise and honor come their way. I just wish there were more ways to honor these folks without getting so wrapped up in the whole patriotism meme.

  • Tony

    Spiderman Bless America!

    Or maybe Hulk Smash America.

    (Smashing is how the Hulk shows his love)

  • Jenda

    Liberty and justice for all is good; Maury’s comment ‘Love Live America’ is excellent. And appreciation for Aaron’s vote!

    As for empty sentiments – I agree it is getting that way. I find that “Regards” is a meaningless way to end an email now – and when it’s obvious its all part of the signature, it loses more meaning. A colleague always writes “With thanks & regards” at the end of his emails – it sounds so much more honest and sincere.

  • http://neosnowqueen.wordpress.com/ neosnowqueen

    It can’t be helped (a woman after my own heart):

    ANYA
    (to woman)
    Please go.

    The woman walks away, shaking her head.

    XANDER
    Anya, the Shopkeeper’s Union of America called. They wanted me to tell you that “please go” just got replaced with “have a nice day.”

    ANYA
    But I have their money. Who cares what kind of day they have?

    XANDER
    No one. It’s just a long cultural tradition of raging insincerity. Embrace it.

    Anya calls out to her customer.

    ANYA
    Hey, you! Have a nice day.

  • muggle

    I imagine if you did respond to the nonsense with “liberty and justice to all” they’d be hard put to argue with you. I think I’ll try it.

    Long live America sounds pretty good to.

    And, of course, America, fuck yeah! But you’d better make sure there’s no kids in ear shot first or the freak outs will begin.

  • kumquatwriter

    Not everyone who works in retail automatically says “have a nice day” (and in fact, I’d almost rather more did; rehearsed or not, at least it’s polite. Half of them don’t even say thank you). Though it’s better than “God bless you,” which I’ve heard on occasion too.

    Some of us register jockeys really do go out of our way to try and wish people well. I work retail, and am chained (not quite literally) to a register fr 8-9 hours a day. And yes, I say “have a nice day” pretty regularly. Though I more often go out of my way to find other ways to express the same sentiment. “Enjoy the rest of your day,” “Stay out of trouble,” “Go enjoy the ____ weather,” etc. I don’t think many people take this as insincere and rehearsed, mainly because it is neither–I really try to connect with my customers. Not because the company requires it (it sort of does, but there’s not really any penalty if you’re a dick to people) but because (a) I like to make people smile and (b) What the hell else am I gonna do, I’m stuck there and bored.

    Why bother writing this essay? I guess part of me bristles when people dismiss the hard work people who actually do care about customer service put in, and I have to speak up on behalf of us (minority) of wage slaves who like people. Mock me if you like (I mock lots of my customers too; they tend to laugh it off same as I will) but there you go.

    Have a nice day! :D

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    “America is dead! Long live America!”

  • Drew M.

    @kumquatwriter

    Thanks for that. I’m a bit irked that people dismiss it all as being insincere.

    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!”

    More often than not, I let it fly these days. I also like informing the offender that they worship the same god as the hijackers. It really messes with their heads after I show them proof.

  • Richard Wade

    kumquatwriter and Drew M,
    I apologize that my example of automatic and ritualized retail niceties was too all-inclusive, and I did not acknowledge the very real and very welcome sincere people who do not fit that characterization. It was meant to be illustrative only, to make the point about how the mindless nature of so many utterances of “God bless America” or any other cliche make them begin to disappear.

    An awake and aware person at the register, being creative in their interactions as kumquatwriter describes, actually can shift my mood from sullen to chipper, and I thank you and those like you for that. Again, my apology and my appreciation for pointing it out.

  • Pali

    @kumquatwriter

    I also work as a clerk in a neighborhood convenience store/deli, and I share your sentiments exactly. Most of our customers are regulars – I see these people more than I see my non-coworker friends or family, and I really do hope they have good days. Granted, there are the people I’ll say it to without any actual meaning behind it – but tone of voice and whether I’m making eye contact or not can make quite the difference.

    @Richard Wade

    Another good example of what you’re trying to point out that I experience pretty regularly is that the phrase “What’s up?” has taken the place of “hello” as a greeting (at least in downtown Madison), and it is taken as such – there is a greeting in turn, not an answer to the question.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I agree with Scythe. E pluribus unum. “Out of many, one” seems appropriate when responding to something as divisive as religion can be and it really does fit the whole states that are now united thing that you’ve got going over there.

  • Josha

    I worked in customer service and being a naturally bubbly person to me these nice sayings were polite and create a good atmosphere for the customer.

    I also happen to like “What’s up” as another form of hello. Sometimes it’s a question, most of the time it’s a greeting. It’s more interesting than saying hello all the time.

    I say that because I’m an American living abroad and rarely get to speak English and I tend to enjoy language and phrases in general. Also, I live in an Eastern European country where customer service isn’t so polite. And I miss hearing “Have a nice day”, seeing smiles and “can I help you”, even though it may not be sincere, it’s still polite.

  • Mentat

    I think the best response to “God bless America” is something like “God bless the whole world”. The religious aspect is less troubling to me than the nationalistic aspect. Really, why limit the request to some particular portion of the planet?

    The other planets can go to hell though.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    With the way the states seem to be in the news these days with the crazy right shamelessly using muslims, migrants, latinos and liberals as scary-devil-men, I think using phrases that emphasise the solidarity of your nation is a very positive move.

    E Pluribus Unum
    One Nation, indivisible
    Liberty and Justice for all

    These are good sayings generally, but especially for the USA with its history of a broad population of immigrants meeting in a huge melting pot.

  • kumquatwriter

    Wow, thanks for the apology Richard! But then, one of the things I like about my fellow Atheists is that we’ll admit when we’re wrong. And its great to see other perky customer service folk speaking up too! Thanks guys! :)

  • muggle

    I’ll speak up as a customer too. Sorry, I didn’t think to before.

    I like it when the clerk manages a smile and have a nice day or some other pleasantry (other than the god bless idiocy which does tick me off) when it’s at least genuine. If it’s said in a surly voice with a frown and obviously because their boss told them to, I don’t bother with my usual return smile and “You too” but when it’s nice and just plain cheerful and friendly, it makes me feel friendly towards that clerk and better about the store.

    I have gone to stores where I’ve picked longer lines because I know the person at the checkout or the bagger is more pleasant than the one with the shorter line. Got to think their line is longer because I ain’t the only one noticing. Cudos to friendly people managing cash registers. I don’t know how you do it, especially at the end of the day when you’re tired and just want to go home.

  • AnonyMouse

    Cashier: “Have a nice day.”

    Batman: “…My parents are DEAD.”

    XD And this is why Bruce Wayne shops online.

    As for platitudes, in my opinion you can’t beat “We are of peace, always.” The more times you say it, the creepier it sounds. Guaranteed never to lose meaning.

    In any case, remember to smile and touch them on the arm. That’ll leave a mark.

  • Sinfanti

    After 9/11 I was asked to sign an employee banner for an airport (I worked at an airline at the time), and my answer was to write “God/Yahweh/Allah Bless America”. I don’t believe in any of them, but I just wanted to get people thinking.

    Now if I really wanted to make a point I would have added Vishnu, Zeus and Odin, but it really didn’t fit the moment.

  • MICHAEL GREEN

    Try, “Power to the people.”


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