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COLUMN

A Change of Heart

Andrew C. Thomas

I’d like to make a retraction.

In an April 4 article [“Politics and Sports”], I wrote about the danger that the patriotic song “God Bless America” represented to a world deeply divided over American foreign policy; specifically, the invasion of Iraq known cinematically as Gulf War II. Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball, had declared that the song should be performed or played during the seventh inning stretch of all Sunday games and home openers, and at any other game at the home team’s discretion.

It wasn’t taken too well in Toronto, where the decision was seen as purely political. Canada’s opposition to military involvement without United Nations consent charged the issue all the more.

Time has passed; the invasion has come, Saddam is out of power and Iraq is under occupation. But soldiers are being picked off left and right, and American security continues to be threatened.

So, I confess. I overreacted about the song. Worse than that, I failed to appreciate any of its real power, or the history it embodies.

I didn’t get that until recently, when I had the opportunity to visit New York City and its two ballparks, Shea and Yankee Stadiums, respectively. The song wasn’t just performed at both ballparks that day. It was celebrated.

There didn’t seem to be a soul in either place that wasn’t singing along. At the time, I thought it was just an overly sentimental pair of New York crowds, but the same thing happened again yesterday at Fenway Park.

Given the passion that the American public feels toward this song, it makes me wonder why “God Bless America” isn’t this country’s national anthem. I can’t say I’ve ever heard an enthusiastic crowd sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” though I do remember crowds at Chicago Stadium, the former home of hockey’s Blackhawks, cheering wildly through it.

Some feel that baseball is responsible for the enshrinement of the national anthem to begin with. Congress declared the tune to be the national anthem in 1931, though President Wilson had declared it as such by executive order in 1916. The song’s affair with baseball dates back to 1918, when the World Series was under threat of cancellation because World War I was being waged in France.

Some wished the series cancelled out of respect for the soldiers, who themselves wished no such thing. Baseball is the ultimate American celebration, and to some a raison d’etre. They wanted to cheer for their teams (which were the Chicago Cubs, and of course the Boston Red Sox). The anthem was performed at those games for the first time as a compromise, during the seventh inning stretch.

Fast forward to Oct. 2001. The invasion of Afghanistan had begun, and New York was only barely beginning to heal. Once again, the threat of cancellation loomed. Mayor Giuliani, the people of New York, and the soldiers of the U. S. Armed Forces all insisted that the series go forth.

The compromises are now both history, but the moods of the time have changed. A song about war was appropriate for a distant conflict in 1918, but a song about freedom, beauty, truth, and love is terribly appropriate for today, at a time when the country is still in pain.

Besides, “God Bless America” even sounds more like a national anthem. It’s easier to sing, with a smaller range and smoother melody. The words are more simple and more visually pleasant. It’s not militaristic or politically partisan. Changes in national anthem are not unprecedented when the old one outlives its purpose.

But there is still the God issue. Would the establishment of “God Bless America” as the national anthem violate the First Amendment?

As someone who is in favor of reverting the Pledge of Allegiance to its pre-1954 version, minus “under God,” the argument on its surface seems hypocritical. For that matter, I’m not a big fan of “In God We Trust” on legal tender. So why the difference?

Well, I’ll confess. There isn’t one, and I can’t think of a good reason why any legal scholar would even consider it. But no one has ever said that national anthems had to be official and government sanctioned. After all, the original patriotic song “Yankee Doodle” was recognized for its importance by the people, and certainly not by the governing power of the time.

Baseball still has power over this nation, and it has often been a beacon to the people of this country and beyond. “God Bless America” must take the place of its predecessor and become the new national anthem, whether recognized by government or not. Failing that, it should take the place of the national anthem before sports events, if not immediately, then gradually. No action I could think of would do more justice to this country and those who support it.