About God Bless America — by Terry Howard

This headline makes for eye-catching copy, does it not? Now, if I said that these are the actual words that accompany the email signature of a person in the U.S. who communicates, often globally, to members of his organization, would you believe me? Well, that’s the truth. I kid you not.

While working through my reaction to this, I wondered what your reaction would be had you received this and you were based in the U.S.? Or Asia? Or Europe? Or if you were an atheist?  Was my reaction – and would yours be – based on seeing the words  “God,” “Bless,” “America” separately, or on the words strung together?

Hmm, my hunch is that I may have just pried open another “keg of worms.” If so, I plead guilty, Your Honor. Bring forth the handcuffs.  But thinking that this had some potential for learning, I decided to test it with a cross section of folks globally who work in different professions.

Now it should come as little surprise that the responses ranged from “It wouldn’t bother me at all,” to “I’d be offended by it if I worked outside the U.S.,” to “She has a perfect right to be proud to be an American,” to “Give me a break Terry Howard; there are far more important things to worry about.”

Although the majority opinion was that this is inappropriate in the workplace, I thought nevertheless it worthwhile to pass along some of the comments – most of them polite, others laced with strong emotions. There’s great value, in my humble opinion, in hearing a variety of perspectives on tough issues and, in the end, deciding individually what we’ll do or not do as a consequence.

Said one person: “We’re a global company. Would Americans find it off-putting for an email subscript to say: “God Bless Israel? Malaysia? India? Korea? On one hand it’s harmless. On the other, we need to see how people from other countries could interpret it. I wonder how people would feel if that statement was made about a country that we have political differences with?  For example, would we feel comfortable with a statement such as “God Bless Iran?”

Said another: “I suppose some might infer that the sender is pitting America against other nations. (Idea being that “God should bless America, but not Germany, or simply that this is equivalent to saying something like, ‘America is the greatest, and so it is more worthy to be blessed than other nations/regions.’) I doubt the sender intended that.”

“This is a tough one, Terry,” wrote a manager in Germany. “I believe this is not exclusive in its original sense. But with all the paranoia going on since September 11, when I’m at immigration as a foreign traveler, sometimes I’m afraid Americans might have lost some of their tolerance and friendliness as a nation.”

Another manager said: “Years ago, I was one of a many recipients of an email that had “Ave Maria grazia plena” (Hail Mary full of grace) after the person’s signature. This is not as exclusive as “God bless America” in my opinion. For me, it is like saying “Hallelujah.” But then again, it is a religious reference in the same line as “Glory be to Allah.” Now what about saying Hallelujah?  At what point does a religious statement become exclusive and a source of conflict?”

Now clearly this one really touched a raw nerve with a few respondents, among them an author and professor of Social Issues and Human Resources at a well-known university who had this to say: “In a nutshell, every time I see ‘God bless America,’ it rankles me. I see it as an insult, hypocrisy and a not veiled slam at everyone who is neither Christian nor American. And I’m a Christian who truly wants God’s blessing.”

Said a Connecticut lawyer: “Terry, the implication could be that America is doing God’s work in the world, that the U.S. is ‘exceptional.’ I’m sure you are aware of Putin’s response to Obama’s use of the term of America being “exceptional” in his remarks related to Iran.”

A procurement specialist said: “This presents a narrow view. It could be considered exclusive. I’d expect to see this on a bumper sticker on the back of a truck, not in an internal email.”

Responded a security manager: “Personally, if it’s referenced on the U.S. currency, National Anthem and part of our national foundation and history in an informal setting, I’m all good with it. But professionally it may not be appropriate for company email for a global company. Distribution within the U.S. should be fine. People in other countries – i.e. Japan, India, China, etc. – could be offended with this footer.”

I next asked this question: If the reference was “God Bless France,” or “God Bless Iran,” or “Glory be to Allah,” would your reaction be different?

Said one: “It would be a different response. The first two would strike me as simply odd, but did not really create a response. The third one created somewhat of a visceral response in me – I still associate that phase as something a suicide bomber says right before detonating the bomb.”

“No,” said another. “I would also like God to bless other nations. I understand that some believe in Allah and not my God. I would not assume they mean to slight my God or my beliefs in a message of that nature, but are simply sharing their thoughts and beliefs.” “Now if a tragedy happened in France or Iran, it might not bother me as much, but as a general statement in normal times, I would feel excluded from the blessing,” said a vice president at a nonprofit organization.

The college professor we heard from earlier said: “If it was ‘God Bless France,’ I would think it was odd. If it were the latter two, I’d really wonder. They are all inappropriate in a work setting. People would probably be more alarmed if it were the latter two, however.”

Wrote a consultant in England: “In France, this would be a complete disaster since the French constitution absolutely separates Church and State. Iran is a Muslim country; therefore, it’s unlikely to mention God in this way. Any blessing would more likely be ‘Peace be upon you’ in Arabic.”

What other thoughts or issues does this raise for you, was my next question. Said the Connecticut lawyer, “Just like some people in Texas view the Dallas Cowboys as ‘America’s Team,’ some Americans view our country as ‘God’s country.'”

A Dallas resident said: “I believe some people make reference to this phrase when they really don’t mean it. I hear it all the time from politicians, and I believe they use it as a selling point.”

Said another: “We could say that these types of references have no place in the corporate world, but isn’t that being exclusive? I used to end my voicemail message with ‘Thanks and have a blessed day.’ Is that an issue? Perhaps someone found it offensive. Must we own everyone’s interpretations?”

I then posed this final question: What are the potential learning opportunities here?

“It’s a situation in which a person may be oblivious to the fact that their beliefs may be offensive to others. It probably seems fairly harmless from the sender’s point of view but is not appropriate in a global corporate setting,” wrote one.

Said another: “I think people should learn not to be so easily offended. Words added to a signature block like the one above would hardly be intended to be offensive or exclusive, and people should learn to focus on things that are truly important and not every little thing.

“I think many people who get easily offended don’t even stop to think about the intentions of the person’s actions, but just how they want to perceive it – and that’s poor communication from the recipient’s side in my opinion.”

One engineer said: “A learning opportunity that I see here is that we as a culture cast such emphasis on respecting other religions and their practices but have cast such negativity on Christians. A common ground of respect needs to be found and practiced amongst all races/religions.”

“It’s easy to write off this person as uninformed,” said a vice president at a major railroad. “However, without knowing the purpose and content of the email, we run the risk of not ‘seeking to understand before being understood .’Just saying what appears to be obvious may not be so obvious.”

Wrote an engineer: “Without occulting my own beliefs necessarily, these are statements I would not choose to salute in corporate email communications. However, in personal emails, to most of my groups (church, family members and in my case, my daughter’s schools, as they are parochial), I could.”

Said another: “How mindful we have to be with our words when communicating with people from our same background (ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.) vs. a much broader diverse group of people. Exclusion can create conflict (how will the non-American team members feel or treat this person afterwards?)

“God Bless America!” My, my, my, those three words!  Maybe “Regards,” “Kind Regards,” or “Sincerely,” ain’t too bad after all. ”

I can never regret anything I never said,” a friend advised me years ago. That can also apply to things we write – or are about to write in a global organization – don’t you think?

By Infolink News Team & Terry Howard, Diversity & Inclusion Director

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