The following article is an excerpt of “The Music’s Debt to Nonbelievers” by Dan Barker, one of 41 articles from the Disinformation anthology I edited, Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion. For more on Dan Barker, check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation (ffrf.org).
Irving Berlin (1888–1989)
How many patriotic Americans know that “God Bless America” 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 “White Christmas,” “Anything You Can Do,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “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,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Easter Parade.”
Born in 1888 into a Russian-Jewish family who came to New York City in 1893 to escape religious persecution, he quickly shed his religious roots and fell in love with America. “Patriotism was Irving Berlin’s true religion,” notes biographer Laurence Bergreen.
“Though he is not a religious person,” his daughter Mary Ellin Barrett writes in her family memoir, “doesn’t even keep up appearances of being an observant Jew, he does not forget who his people are.” Irving and his nominally Catholic wife, Ellin, were married in an unannounced secular ceremony at the Municipal Building, not a church or synagogue…