Yesterday morning, I attended the Cubs/Nationals game at Nationals Park. It was a lovely day for baseball — not too hot, not especially humid, sunny and bright, a stiff breeze blowing in from the direction of centerfield toward the Anacostia.
The Cubs won, 7-2.
Being July 4th, the game had a particular patriotic flavor, with a special display of the American flag on field before the game, a salute to the men and women of the armed forces after the fourth inning, the teams in patriotic hats (and, for the Nationals, in their alternate patriotic blue jerseys), and, during the seventh inning stretch, a performance of “God Bless America.”
People throughtout the stadium stood and removed their caps.
I stayed in my seat.
That was, I admit, a risky move on my part. There are documented cases of fans being assaulted and ejected at other ballparks, like Yankee Stadium, for failing to show “proper respect” to “God Bless America.” Yet there is no such thing as “proper respect” for the song. It’s not the national anthem.
Then, when the last notes faded away, the stadium (or, at least the second deck in the outfield where I was) erupted in a chant — “USA! USA! USA!”
Moments later, Dan Kolko of MASN tweeted out this:
"God Bless America" done right. pic.twitter.com/DcoVhQo6Ui
— Dan Kolko (@masnKolko) July 4, 2014
The Marine Corps singer, whose name escapes me, performed the song well indeed. But I won’t say the song was “done right.” As far as I’m concerned, the song shouldn’t have been done at all.
I have a real problem with “God Bless America.” Like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “God Bless America” is inappropriate for a country with a sizeable non-Christian population. And like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “God Bless America” expresses an unfortunate sense of Christian triumphalism that crosses the line into the jingoistic, especially with the way that “God Bless America” become omnipresent and co-opted for political reasons after 9-11. The song is exclusionary and nationalistic. That’s my problem.
The exclusion problem is obvious from the song’s title. Listen to the lyrics of the song. The song is a prayer to god from Americans, imploring him to bestow blessings upon the nation. But not all Americans are religious, and the song doesn’t convey any sentiment whatsoever that the non-religious, like myself, an atheist, would express.
Just as importantly, the song expresses a sentiment of American exceptionalism. It says that American is exceptional because of god’s blessing.
The United States is not an exceptional country. We are, at best, a fortunate country in that we in a very defensible geographic position and, thus, wars we engage in are things that happen over there and not here.
In terms of quality of life, the United States is a middle-of-the-pack country. Other countries have better eduction systems and better health systems. Other countries have better infrastructure. Other countries have better measures of social mobility and income equality.
The place where the United States is exceptional? We spend more per annum on our military than the rest of the world combined.
Given a choice between making our country exceptional at home and making our country exceptional at bombing the ever-living-fuck out of some Third World hellhole, our society, from the grassroots to our leaders, made the choice to bomb the ever-living-fuck out of those Third World hellholes.
If there were a god, and if this god really did bless America, I imagine he would be sitting on his heavenly throne saying, “Really, America? What the fuck. I gave you this great country, I gave you these resources, I gave you all of these opportunities. And rather than use these opportunities for good, you’ve decided to squander them by becoming the world’s biggest asshole.”
Don’t think god gets off the hook, either; at the very least, he’s an accessory, if not a co-conspirator, to America’s raging assholery.
When I hear “God Bless America,” that’s what I think. I think about George Bush saying that religion is the hallmark of civilization, by implication castigating the non-religious as uncivilized. I think of Dick Cheney and Ari Fleischer and Donald Rumsfeld attacking those who dissented during the Bush years as being unpatriotic and un-American. “God Bless America” became a cudgel, one that was used to make me and others feel unwelcome in their own country and one that, frankly, came very close to driving me back into the atheist closet.
And when people use “God Bless America” to say, “We’re godly and we’re the best,” like they have post-9-11, I get pissed off because first, you’re telling me and every other atheist that we don’t belong in our own country; and second, you don’t understand how, in the grand scheme of things, the United States isn’t really anything special.
That’s why I didn’t stand for “God Bless America.” Standing for the song would have been tacit approval for things that I disagree with fundamentally and that I believe are wrong. Once, I liked the song. I would gladly sing it, despite my atheism, the same way I gladly sing Christmas carols today. But now all I hear in “God Bless America” is the nationalism and the triumphalism, and in multicultural 21st-century America, I don’t think that’s appropriate.