Favorite Pastime? A Seventh-Inning Walk through Hell in a Gasoline Suit

“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.”  –Pete Rose

Ah, yes, nothing unites—and divides—our country like that great game of baseball and the conversations it inspires. Passionate debates abound: Which is the most venerable stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or the original Yankee Stadium? Who makes the best hotdogs: Hebrew National, Dietz & Watson, Oscar Mayer, or Nathan’s? If “Babe” Ruth had to face modern pitchers, would he have had such a successful homerun career? Should Major League Baseball players be required to play against teams in Japan, Tawain, or South America to make it a truly “World” Series? Should we sing “God Bless America” at a baseball game?

I was fortunate to attend the monumental last game of the Washington Nationals 2014 regular season, and the no-hitter was a truly memorable occasion for me and my guests visiting from the UK. I was already prepared to answer the cultural questions that were bound to arise concerning “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but it was a surprise to my guests and me when the announcer boomed over the stadium’s PA system for everyone to stand in respect for America during the singing of a special song. My guests stood up like everyone else, but when I heard the beginning of “God Bless America,” sung by a young girl and broadcast live on the Jumbotron, I sat down. I could tell it was embarrassing for them when they looked around to find me sitting and asked, “Aren’t we supposed to be standing for this?” They sheepishly sat down, and then I had some explaining to do.

First of all, the Nationals just had to choose that particular song didn’t they? After all, it was their senior director of baseball media relations that instituted this new nationwide “tradition” in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Irving Berlin (who also penned “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and “There’s No Business like Show Business”) wrote the song in 1918—the final year of World War I—when he was serving in the U.S. Army, but it was publically broadcast in 1938 after the rise of the Third Reich. While beloved by Americans of all stripes, the song is not without controversy. In her book, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song,” Sheryl Kaskowitz explores the anti-Semitism it inspired after it debuted and also traces its modern identity as a conservative anthem used to oppose and silence secular liberalism.

One of my friends who’d attended the game with me that night emailed me about it not too long after they left DC:

You know that I have visited the United States several times over the past seven years, and each time I have usually managed to go to at least one baseball game. I’ve saw a grand slam in Baltimore, that no-hitter in Washington, DC, and several of your humoros mascots like the Phillie Phanatic or Washington’s racing presidents. Despite not being an American, I am happy to stand during the performance of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” out of respect for your country (I do draw the line at that Roman legion hand-on-heart business that goes on). What happened during that Nationals game was beyond my comprehension: everyone stood and showed their support/respect whilst some young girl sang a rendition of “God Bless America.” I was amazed at the social programming and the crowd’s instant lemming-like response to this mandate! I felt an overwhelming, unspoken pressure from those around me, who were looking disapprovingly as you were still sitting, so I wondered should I also stand? I almost did, but then you explained that, for you, the song had nothing to do with patriotism or respect for one’s country. … There were several things I don’t think the crowds around us had considered in their eagerness to comply with their puppet masters, namely that I am not American and I do not believe in a deity. (Incidentally, my family has honorably and unselfishly enlisted and served in the British military in alliance with American forces: my grandfather was in the Royal Garrison Artillery during World War 1, my father flew in Dakota bombers during World War 2, and my uncle sailed on the HMS Ark Royal.) “God Bless America” is unashamedly a Christian song that belongs in a church and not in a ball park where people of ALL religions—or none—have  come to watch a game, not to have blatant Christian ideology foisted upon them.

The issue about singing “God Bless America” at a professional sporting event is not about displaying one’s patriotism, but rather a particular and narrow view of patriotism, which has now become tightly intertwined with Evangelical/conservative Christianity. Articles written by Merrill Miller, Amanda Scott, and David Niose warn that our country has fallen victim to erroneous thinking that American=patriot=conservative=God fearing, and that anything that deviates from this line of reasoning is wrong and should be excluded, like the fan ejected from a Yankees game in 2009. I shudder to consider how many other “patriotic” fans at the game would agree with the assessments of Dana Perino, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Bob Beckel that people who disagree with their ideology deserve to be viewed as “less than American.”