By Farooq A. Kperogi
The status update of one of my Facebook friends simultaneously enchanted and piqued my curiosity. The friend was commenting on the vast disconnect between the slogans countries cherish about themselves and the material realities that abide in those countries. In the course of his rumination, he repeated a popular Nigerian fictional representation of America that I feel obliged to respond to and rupture.
“The US is not the most religious country in the world but everyone knows it as ‘God’s Own Country,’” he wrote. “Even Italy, on whose soil sits the Vatican City, does not contest the God’s-own-country tag with the US, neither does Israel or Saudi Arabia both of which have holy sites visited en masse all-year-round. Any day any country starts calling itself ‘the real God’s own country,’ that country will be seen as trying to ridicule the US. Even American atheists and agnostics would protest.”
The idea that America calls itself—or is called by “everyone”—as “God’s own country” is pervasive in Nigeria. But is there any truth to this notion? Well, in the more than half a decade that I have lived here, I have never come across a single American who is even faintly familiar with the idea that America is called “God’s own country”!
And I have traveled to more than 30 of America’s 50 states. I have traveled to northern, southern, western, and eastern states of this country, and have actually taken the trouble to ask most of the people I have interacted with if they recognize the phrase “God’s own country” as their national slogan. Almost always, my question elicited quizzical looks. “God’s own what? Never heard of that!” That’s the standard response I often get.
But what is even more perplexing, for me, is the fact that only Nigerians think— and say—that America’s national motto is “God’s own country.” I have asked many of my Caribbean, South American, Middle Eastern, and Asian friends here if they know America to be “God’s own country.” None of them has ever heard America identified with that slogan.
So why are Nigerians the only people on earth who call America “God’s own country”? How did Nigerians come to associate that term exclusively with the United States? Well, before we get to these questions, it will help to trace the roots, evolution, and usage of the phrase.
Actually, many countries have staked claims to being “God’s own country.” But there is a consensus among scholars that New Zealand is the first country in the world to officially refer to itself as “God’s own country.” The phrase was introduced to the country by Thomas Bracken, one of New Zealand’s most influential poets and journalists who also had the distinction of being the sole author of his country’s national anthem. According to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “God’s own country” first appeared in Bracken’s last major book entitled Lays and lyrics: God's own country and other poems, which was published in 1893, six years before his death.
New Zealand’s longest-serving and most influential Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, who ruled the country from April 1893 to June 1906, was intrigued by the phrase “God’s own country” in the title of Bracken’s book. So, in 1893, he adopted it and gave it governmental imprimatur as New Zealand’s motto. Years later, Australia, New Zealand’s closest neighbor to the southeast, “stole” the slogan.
In the 1970s, Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, also called itself “God’s own country” in acknowledgement of its stunning scenic splendor. But after independence in 1980, the motto was dropped. Other places that used to or still call themselves “God’s own country” are Ireland and England’s Yorkshire County (which sometimes renders the phrase as “God’s own county”).
But the part of the world that is now more popularly known by the “God’s own country” tagline than even New Zealand is India’s Kerala State, located in the southern part of the country. It adopted the tagline “Kerala—God’s own country” in the 1990s in its bid to attract and boost international tourism. The National Geographic Traveler, a well-regarded US-based international tourism magazine published by the National Geographic Society, named Kerala one of the “ten paradises of the world” and “50 places of a lifetime.”
So, what about the United States? How did it get to be associated with the slogan “God’s own country” by Nigerians? I have two theories. The first theory is rooted in America’s history. During America’s Civil War between 1861 and 1865, the northern army (often called the Union troops in American history books) who were fighting southern secessionists usually arrogantly called their homeland, that is, the American north, “God’s country.” This was apparently intended to slight the south.
This means, in effect, that the phrase was at best a self-important regional label; at no time did it refer to the whole of the United States. It is not clear if New Zealand’s Bracken “stole” it from the Union troops since they used it earlier than he did. From my point of view, however, this seems improbable given the vast geographic distance between America and New Zealand, not to talk of the sluggish pace of informational flows at the time.
But it suffices to state that many contemporary Americans have no memories of this Civil War-era reference to the American north as “God’s own country,” and never ever refer to their whole country as such, contrary to what many Nigerians believe.
Interestingly, in American English, the phrase “God’s country” now simply means “one’s own homeland,” that is, the place where one was born and raised, as in: “Welcome to God’s own country, and we hope you will enjoy your stay among us.” It can also mean “an isolated rural area,” or a naturally beautiful area, especially in the countryside.
My guess is that early Nigerian visitors to America mistook the American idiomatic expression “welcome to God’s own country,” which they probably encountered in many parts of the country, as evidence that the country called itself “God’s own country” and brought back that mistaken notion to Nigeria. But this begs the question why only Nigerians understood—and still understand—that expression literally.
My second theory is that Nigerians associate the phrase with America because of the false attraction of the similar-sounding phrase “In God we trust,” which has been inscribed on American coin currencies since the 1860s and on its paper currencies since 1957. It was also adopted as America’s official motto in 1956. And, contrary to my friend’s claims, “In God we trust,” America’s official motto, has been (unsuccessfully) challenged by American secularists and atheists, although a 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans approve of it.
All said, America is NOT “God’s own country.” At no time in its history has it ever identified itself by that motto. Only Nigerians, to my knowledge, call America “God’s own country.”