My father hated “God Bless America.” He particularly hated jumbo 40’s singer Kate Smith’s rendition of it, which he believed exploited patriotism and combined it with sentimentality and schmaltz to get ratings and sell records. Smith had an unadorned clarion belt that particularly suited Irving Berlin’s blunt melody, and for 30 years she used the song as her signature, as much as Judy Garland used “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Whenever Smith appeared on a TV variety show like The Hollywood Palace, he would order me to change the channel (yes, I was the family remote) for fear that he would have to hear her sing that song.
I assumed that was the reason why I have felt queasy about Major League Baseball’s 7th inning stretch ritual, installed in 2001, of having a recording of Kate or a live singer ring out the Irving Berlin standard at every major league baseball game since the Twin Towers fell. In today’s Washington Post, however, a Methodist minister—my father was also a Methodist, as much as he was anything—explained why he refuses to stand for the song. He nailed it.
James Marsh writes,
“…I love this country and don’t want to live anywhere else. But being pressured to stand up at a baseball game for a song that’s essentially a prayer seems, well, un-American. It feels like being pushed into the river for a baptism I didn’t choose. It’s an empty ritual, and one that I think doesn’t hold much theological water. What we join together to say, sing and stand up for says something about us as a people. I think it matters. At ballparks across the country, we are expected to participate in what can be described only as a prayer to ask God’s blessings on our nation. As nice as blessings are, singing this song doesn’t feel like it has integrity the way signing our national anthem does… I imagine that the God I believe in isn’t interested in dispensing special nationalistic blessings. (Or, perhaps more to the point, blessings for our bullpen, error-free fielding and sufficient run support.) When we ask for blessings to be bestowed only on “us,” we are in danger of seeing ourselves as set apart from the world. Faith is global, and one nation doesn’t get any more or less of God than any other. Asking for God’s blessing for “us” or “me” ignores greater needs in our world. We should ask a bigger question: How can we get this blessing to all? I want God walking with and standing beside every single person on this Earth — and every country.
“Stepping back, this also raises the question: Why do we all too frequently seek to invoke rituals that, in the end, undermine our common bonds? Not everyone in our nation or at the ballpark shares the same beliefs. From which god are we asking these blessings? What does the good secular humanist or atheist do during this song? Are we to assume that all deities will be in concert for those who believe in more than one? This “god” business — how (and whether) we conceive of the divine — is messy, even in our houses of worship. At a ballgame, where most of us have come to root for the Nats, it just doesn’t fit. We shouldn’t make a grand assumption that we’re all of one belief. The one thing that we do, in fact, have in common is the love of baseball.”
(Read the whole piece here.)
Bingo. “God Bless America” is one patriotic display at the games too many. It diminishes the significance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and now seems jingoistic and crass to me. How many of those who are too young to remember 9/11/01 even know why the song is being performed? An obscure gesture is no longer purposeful meaningful. This was originally a demonstration of solidarity with the victims of terrorism, essentially like the playing of Neil Diamond’s even cheesier song, “Sweet Caroline” in ballparks following the Boston Marathon bombing. That was done once, and once was plenty.
And while it isn’t the major reason to dump GBA, I have missed the unique respite that the seventh inning stretch, a far older tradition, provided. Here was a time to stand up or not, get a drink and a dog without missing something, chat with strangers in the stands, review the game so far, all while some version of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” played in the background, harkening our minds back to reflect upon, in the words of that eminent novelist, Terrence Mann, “all that once was good, and that could be again.”
Now we have to leap to our feet, listen to some opera singer, juvenile contest winner or the Dreaded Kate, and think solemn thoughts. I think enough solemn thoughts, thank you. I go to baseball games to have fun, or be tortured by the Red Sox.
As usual, Dad was right. Shut up, Kate.