I spent Father's Day afternoon with a friend at Citi Field in Queens catching the Mets versus the Angels in inter-league play. It was a beautiful day; perfect for baseball. I had not been to a major league game in New York City for a number of years and I forgot what would happen. During the seventh inning stretch the public address announcer asked everyone to stand to "Honor America" while a duo on the field sang "God Bless America." It seemed like almost everyone in the stadium rose up, but my friend and I stayed in our seats.
"God Bless America" is not the national anthem of the United States nor is it the pledge of allegiance to the flag. It was written in 1918 by songster Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, while he was in the army during World War I. Berlin originally intended it as a show tune for a musical revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. The song was cut from the show and basically disappeared from view for twenty years.
In 1938, Berlin was concerned about events in Nazi Germany. He reintroduced "God Bless America" as a peace song and added as an introduction, "While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that's free." One reason the song never became the national anthem of the United States was because of hostility from conservatives, particularly in the south, to the idea that the national anthem could be written and composed by an immigrant and a Jew.
During World War II the song was used to promote victory and patriotism. Folk singer Woody Guthrie rejected what he felt was the jingoism and religiosity of "God Bless America" and wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a response.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, "God Bless America" has become a standard at major league ballparks, although if and when to play it is at the option of the home team. In July 2009 a fan charged he was ejected from Yankee Stadium for going to the bathroom during the playing of "God Bless America" and in September of that year three teenagers were thrown out of a Newark Bears minor league baseball game for refusing to stand.
I won't stand up for "God Bless America" for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is not the national anthem, for which I stand out of respect when it is played. Second, the song is essentially a prayer that God take the side of the United States in international controversies. I am tired of politicians of all political stripes claiming God endorses their policies. So far I have seen no evidence that God votes Democrat or Republican. In fact, the word God is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, however, it does say, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
If I wanted to pray, I would go to a church, synagogue, or mosque, not a baseball game. In addition, I do not believe God, if there is a God, takes sides in wars. If there is a God, she most likely cries when humans kill each other.
Sunday, September 11, 2011 will be the tenth anniversary of the aerial attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I expect to hear "God Bless America" a lot in the next few months. Rather than a blind celebration of patriotism, I would like the tenth anniversary to become a time of national introspection and conversation, especially about U.S. foreign and military policy.
There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or Afghanistan and it is highly unlikely that military occupation will ever lead to stable or democratic governments. The war on terrorism, a war without end, has now expanded to Libya and Pakistan and is producing more terrorists than it is eliminating. The estimated 1.3 trillion dollar price tag during the past decade has helped to put the United States in perilous economic condition. This week, the United States Conference of Mayors called for an early end to American military involvement in these wars and redirecting the money being spent there to rebuild the national infrastructure and put people to work.
As much as we sing "God Bless America," God has not blessed the United States in this venture.
P.S. It seems God does not take sides in baseball games either. The Mets played like a Triple-A team and lost 7-3.