Irving Berlin the Agnostic
Originally published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.
How many patriotic Americans, proudly singing "God Bless America," realize that the song they are intoning was written by a man who did not believe in God?
Or that it was intended as an anti-war anthem?
Irving Berlin is by any measure the greatest composer of popular American music, with hundreds of enduring hits, such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "I Love A Piano," "Always," "Blue Skies," "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," "Cheek to Cheek," "Marie," "Play a Simple Melody," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Anything You Can Do," "Easter Parade," and "White Christmas."
Born in 1888 into a Russian Jewish family who came to New York City to escape religious persecution when Irving was five years old, he quickly shed his religious roots and fell in love with America. He became an American citizen when he was 29. "Patriotism was Irving Berlin's true religion," writes biographer Laurence Bergreen in As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (1990).
Irving Berlin was "not a religious person," according to his daughter Mary Ellin. Relating the story of Irving's marriage to Ellin Mackay in 1926, whose devout father had a deep reluctance to welcome a "lower-class" Jew into the wealthy Catholic family, she writes:
"About religion -- Jew and Catholic. My mother has broached the subject of being married by a priest. She herself, though she goes to mass, keeps up appearances, doesn't believe in all that anymore, she assures him. She has had such a strange religious upbringing: a Protestant like her mother till the divorce, a Catholic since. But a priest might help soften her father. Irving, however, the cantor's son, doesn't see himself being married by a priest. Though he is not a religious person, doesn't even keep up appearances of being an observant Jew, he does not forget who his people are." (Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir, by Mary Ellin Barrett, 1994.) They got married in an unannounced secular, civil ceremony at the Municipal Building, not a church or synagogue.
Once they had children, Mrs. Berlin did try to keep up a minimal appearance of religious tradition. Mary Ellin writes that her unbelieving parents "had their first bad fight when my mother suggested raising me as a Catholic . . . ."
The Berlins had three daughters. "Both our parents," Mary Ellin recalls, "would pass down to their children the moral and ethical values common to all great religions; give us a sense of what was right and what was wrong; raise us not to be good Jews or good Catholics or good whatever else you might care to cite, but to be good (or try to be) human beings. . . . When we grew up, she said, we would be free to choose--if we knew what was best for us, the religion of our husband. . . . It wouldn't quite work out, when we 'grew up,' as my mother hoped. All three of us would share our father's agnosticism and sidestep our husband's faiths."
The man who wrote "White Christmas" actually hated Christmas. "Many years later," Mary Ellin writes, "when Christmas was celebrated irregularly in my parents' house, if at all, my mother said, almost casually, 'Oh, you know, I hated Christmas, we both hated Christmas. We only did it for you children.'"
So why did an agnostic humanist who hated Christmas write the song "White Christmas?"
Undoubtedly, it had something to do with the businessman in him. When his friend Cole Porter confessed that he hated his own "Don't Fence Me In," a surprise international hit, Berlin advised him, "Never hate a song that has sold a half million copies." (Cole Porter, by William McBrien, 1998.)
Christmas, for Irving Berlin, was not a religious holiday: it was an American holiday. He simply needed a melody in 1940 for a show called Holiday Inn, an escapist "American way of life" musical (when all hell was breaking loose in Europe) which called for a song for each holiday. The words to "White Christmas" are not about the birth of a savior-god: they are about winter, the real reason for the season.
Biographer Bergreen writes about the Christmas of 1942:
"Accustomed to traditional holiday celebrations, Ellin arranged for a Christmas tree to be delivered to Berlin's hotel suite in Detroit, where he was performing in This is the Army, and with the girls' assistance she proceeded to decorate the tree while a photographer memorialized the occasion. The photograph of the songwriter, his wife, and family decorating the Christmas tree, when reproduced in the newspapers, served as another plug for 'White Christmas.' Berlin, the cantor's son, rationalized his participation in the Christmas rite on the basis that it had become an American holiday, and as a professional patriot, he made a habit of appropriating all things American to himself."
This U.S. postage stamp (above left) was issued in a ceremony in New York City in September 2002, one year after the 9/11 WTC attacks. Out of agnostic Irving Berlin's 1,500+ songs, "God Bless America" was chosen to represent his life's work.
"God Bless America" was originally written in 1918 for a patriotic WWI show. Irving Berlin had joined the army, and (according to Harry Ruby, his pianist colleague at Camp Upton) to avoid getting up early each morning, Irving convinced his superiors to allow him to serve his country by producing a musical for military PR. It was a light-hearted life-in-the-army show called Yip, Yip Yaphank, including the comic bugle call "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In The Morning."
As he was finishing the writing, "Berlin composed one unashamedly patriotic anthem," Bergreen writes, "which spoke of prairies and mountains and oceans white with foam. He called it 'God Bless America,' but even as he dictated it to Ruby, Berlin became insecure about its originality. 'There were so many patriotic songs coming out everywhere at the time,' Ruby recalled. 'Every song-writer was pouring them out.' As he wrote down the melody, Ruby said to Berlin, 'Geez, another one?' Deciding that Ruby was right, that the song was too solemn to ring true for the acerbic doughboys, Berlin cut it from the score and placed it in his trunk. 'Just a little sticky' was the way he described the song. 'I couldn't visualize soldiers marching to it. So I laid it aside and tried other things.'"
The song was forgotten for two decades. During those years, Irving Berlin's attitude toward war evolved.
In 1938, while the United States was resisting joining the new European conflict, the singer Kate Smith was looking for a song to perform during her Armistice Day broadcast--a "song of peace," she said. It happened that Irving Berlin was also casting about for an idea for a pacifist anthem. Almost no one in America wanted to go to war. "I'd like to write a great peace song," he told an interviewer, "but it's hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace. Easy to dramatize war. . . . Yet music is so important. It changes thinking, it influences everybody, whether they know it or not."
He tried writing a couple of peace songs, but they were "too much like making a speech to music," he said. It then occurred to him to dig up that discarded composition from 1918.
"I had to make one or two changes in the lyrics," Berlin continued in the interview, "and they in turn led me to a slight change and, I think, an improvement in the melody. . . . One line in particular; the original line ran: 'Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.' In 1918 the phrase 'to the right' had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons I changed the phrase to 'Through the night with a light from above,' and I think that's better.
"One of the original lines read: 'Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America, my home sweet home.' Well, I didn't want this to be a war song, so I changed that line to 'From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, God Bless America, my home, sweet home.' This longer line altered the meter and led to a change in the melody."
Kate Smith sang Berlin's peace anthem on national radio on November 11, and it became an immediate hit.
"The reason 'God Bless America' caught on," Berlin tried to explain to The New York Times in 1940, "is that it happens to have a universal appeal. Any song that had that is bound to be a success. . . ."
Discussing the mystery of what makes a hit song, he continued: "The mob is always right. It seems to be able to sense instinctively what is good, and I believe that there are darned few good songs which have not been whistled or sung by the crowd."
This was "a populist credo, as well as a merchant's," Bergreen observes. Irving Berlin may have been right about the business of the mob's taste in music, but he never envisioned "God Bless America" becoming a pro-war anthem, as it is often sung by "the right" today.
Some of us freethinkers might wonder why an agnostic would write a song about "God" at all, especially a Jewish agnostic who must have known that the capital-G "God" is perceived by most to be the Christian deity. But just as "White Christmas" is not about Christ, "God Bless America" is not about God; it is about America. Irving Berlin was not an atheist evangelist; he was a songwriter and businessman who wrote and sold music that reflected the popular mood.
"'God Bless America' revealed that patriotism was Irving Berlin's true religion," Bergreen writes. "It evoked the same emotional response in him that conventional religious belief summoned in others; it was his rock."
Even though Irving Berlin occasionally used the word "God" in a poetic sense, never once in his more than 1,500 songs did he ever promote religion.
"I don't write church lyrics on the side," he once told a journalist, "have no passion for flowers, and never read Shakespeare in the original Greek."
In fact, he sometimes poked fun at faith.
Four years after the original "God Bless America," Irving Berlin wrote "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades," a song for his 1922 Music Box Review performed at the new Music Box Theater in New York, which he had built especially for his productions. The song was about the recent "jazz" craze that was sweeping the country, which was being condemned by the Church.
"In the press and from pulpits, self-appointed guardians of public morality decried this dancing bestiary," Bergreen writes. "Matters became so serious that a New York grand jury investigated, and after due deliberation arrived at a 'presentment condemning the turkey trot and kindred dances and laying particular stress on the fact that the hotels and cafes allow such dances.' " People were arrested for dancing! Some lost their jobs for dancing during lunch breaks.
During Berlin's 1922 rebellious revue, an attractive comedienne named Charlotte Greenwood, dressed in a red devil suit, dispatched popular jazz musicians to hell singing, "They've got a couple of old reformers in heaven, making them go to bed at eleven. Pack up your sins and go to the devil, and you'll never have to go to bed at all." (See sidebar.) The song is the perfect antidote to "God Bless America."
Irving Berlin died quietly at home in 1989 at the age of 101. A patriotic agnostic who devoted himself to enriching America, he lived a productive life full of family values, hard work, determination, and joy. He did not believe in an afterlife; but maybe he did jokingly wish for a hell, because "all the nice people are there."
As Mark Twain said, "Heaven for climate; hell for society." If there is a hell, we unbelievers will be in great company.
Dan Barker, a former minister, is a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan's father Norman Barker can be seen playing the trombone alongside Judy Garland as she sings "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" in the 1948 musical movie of Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade."
"Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades" is recorded on Dan's new "Beware of Dogma" CD produced by the Foundation. Also on that CD is a parody of "God Bless America," and the new freethinking "God-Less America," re-written by Dan Barker and Steve Benson.