I didn’t want to stand up when the crowd sang “God Bless America” at Fenway Park last Sunday, at a baseball game on a gorgeous, sunny late summer afternoon. Didn’t want to take my hat off. Put my hand over my heart. Belt out the lyrics with 30,000 other fans.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to think I’m patriotic. I love singing our real national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”. Hat off, placed over the center of my chest. Watching as a huge American flag whips and curls in the breeze. Then as Francis Scott Key’s song builds to a crescendo of “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”, I cheer at the top of my lungs.
The singing of “God Bless America” is a new tradition and became the norm at major league ball parks right after September 11, 2001. It started at New York City’s Yankee Stadium, at the first game played there after that awful Tuesday morning of terror, death and fear thirteen years ago this week.
The singing of the America’s official national anthem at sporting events is a much older ritual. It began in the 1918 World Series, which took place right before the end of World War I. During the seventh inning stretch, a band struck up an impromptu version of the anthem. Red Sox and Cubs players faced the flag in centerfield and the crowd stood up and joined in. The singing of the anthem at every game was formalized when America entered World II as a way to unite folks in that common cause.
Fans singing together then knew all too well about shared wartime service and sacrifice. Every person in the park was touched by war. Moms worried about their sons and daughters overseas. Gold Star families mourned loved ones who died in battle. Neighbors struggled with wartime shortages and rationing. Tired factory workers toiled on double shifts to support the war effort. Then the national anthem was a sincere call to patriotism, for Americans to work, work, together to protect and defend their homeland.
It’s hard to fathom that this Thursday, 4,749 days will have passed since 9/11. Half a generation. Millions of words will be written and spoken to mark this anniversary and most will extol patriotism. But post 9/11: what does it mean to be a patriot, patriotic? That question is why I struggle with the singing of “God Bless America” as a vestige of 9/11. Not because of the sincere motives of those who sing. Not because of the desire to honor 9/11 victims and the millions of service men and women who served in two wars birthed on that day so long ago.
What worries me is that the “patriotism” which has emerged since 9/11 is marked largely by symbolism and rhetoric, not so much by shared sacrifice. Patriotism “light”. The ubiquitous flag lapel pin adorning every politician. The perfunctory ending of every speech, with, “And may God bless the United States of America”. The contradictory adoration of soldiers and veterans, even as so many of them receive terrible care at the hands of Uncle Sam. Or can’t find work. Or suffer from trauma.
America has been at war continuously since 9/11, but the truth is that few of us have done anything in support of that effort. Are we ready to send our son or daughter into harm’s way? Pay extra taxes to finance our wars, instead of going into debt that our kids will one day have to pay back? This week our world will be saturated in patriotic symbols and speeches and services and stories, yet is this really patriotism?
For me patriotism is a verb, not a noun. Patriotism is what we do to make our country strong, not what we say or sing or declare. Patriotism is about voting every single time we have the chance. Patriotism is about paying our fair share of taxes as a duty, not an onerous task. Patriotism is about saluting the veteran in the parade and then making sure she has everything she needs to get on with her life. Patriotism is about volunteering: serving on town boards and committees, coaching kids in sports, dropping off a bag of groceries at the food pantry, worshipping God in freedom and being grateful for that gift. Patriotism is about keeping up with current events and knowing our history. Patriotism is sometimes about protesting the government, calling it to live up to its highest ideals.
Patriotism is so much more than standing up at a ballgame or singing a song, or flying the stars and stripes outside of our house, or saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school.
This 9/11 week of remembrance: let’s be real patriots. Do something, anything, to make America a better place; honor the lost and the fallen through action, and not just public ceremonies and private prayers.
Thirteen years later, that would be a real blessing to America.