The “God Bless You” Debate

October 5th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Is the idiom an outdated interruption or a key stitch in our social fabric?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

After I sneezed a couple of weeks ago, my 2-year-old daughter squeaked, “Bless you, Mama,” a colloquialism she’d undoubtedly picked up at daycare. On the social etiquette scale, saying “God bless you” after someone nearby sneezes falls shortly after saying “please” and “thank you,” so I knew it was only a matter of time before all of my sneezes were blessed.

However, if my daughter had honored the same societal norm in a Vacaville, Calif. classroom, she might have been reprimanded or even punished, according to a recent story on the Today show.

William C. Wood High School health teacher Steve Cuckovich actually docks his students’ scores when they say “God bless you” or “bless you” in the middle of class. Outraged parents have accused his rule of being anti-religious. But Cuckovich argues that he is simply trying to put an end to an outdated tradition that interrupts his classroom.

“The blessing doesn’t make sense anymore,” Cuckovich told a Fox affiliate in Sacramento. “When you sneezed in the old days, they thought you were dispelling evil spirits out of your body[…]But today, what you’re doing doesn’t really make sense.”

As far as historical accuracy is concerned, Cuckovich has it right. Though my daughter and the high school students may not intentionally be referencing Pope Gregory I’s ruling during the time of the bubonic plague, the traditional “God bless you” stems from his orders. In an effort to stop the spread of the plague, Gregory I ordered unending prayers and the post-sneeze blessing – and it stuck.

Brian Cook, managing editor of Conservative Daily News, accused Cuckovich of anti-religious rhetoric, saying, “Of course this has to do with religion!” But Cuckovich claims that his stand against the idiom has nothing to do with the “God” in “God bless you,” but with the tradition’s “interruption of class time.”

John Bershad at Mediaite grudgingly defends Cuckovich’s “bless you” ban. After all, he says, Cuckovich is a health teacher, and he’s just trying to demonstrate that the saying is based on old misconceptions about health. “It seems pretty ridiculous to hurt a kid’s grade just because he’s subscribing to society’s set manners,” Bershad writes. “However, this guy does teach high school health.”

According to the Today show, Cuckovich has been forced to lift the ban because of the response. Now, he’s on the receiving end of a lesson in high school teasing; students in his classes have started dramatically fake-sneezing to launch a chorus of “God bless you’s.”

But what does Cuckovich’s small protest say about tampering with societal conventions? Who is responsible for ending outdated social behaviors? Or is the “God bless you” tradition a harmless colloquialism that needn’t be ended? What do you think?