When James P. Marsh Jr., a Methodist pastor, goes to Washington Nationals games, he doesn’t stand up for the traditional singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning. It’s a principled stand which has earned him enough dirty looks he felt it necessary to explain himself in a Washington Post editorial. His objections are three: First, insisting that everyone stand during the singing of a prayer is an empty ritual, “like being pushed into the river for a baptism I didn’t choose.” Second, the song strikes him as inherently chauvinistic: Why are we asking God to bless just us, instead of the whole world? Third, since the Nationals fan next to him on the bench may not believe in the same god, or any god, it seems a bit insensitive to flaunt one’s faith in a secular context.
These are all pretty standard reasons, easily refuted in the comments section (where a bare majority of the nearly 3,000 comments disagreed). Sensitivity has nothing to do with whether a crowd of people acknowledge a deity together—should we be equally “sensitive” about calls for prayer in Istanbul? As for chauvinism, asking God to bless your nation is no more exclusive than asking him to bless your children. To Marsh’s first objection, though, I largely agree with him, even though I’m probably coming at it from a different angle.
It’s the angle of Isaiah, whose prophesies are an anguished mix of pleading rage, chastising love, and tingling hope. The judgments sting like whip lashes: “Woe to those who call good evil, and evil good” (5:20); “[W]e have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter” (28:15); “[T]ruth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter” (59:14). We hear you, Isaiah—sounds a lot like contemporary political discourse. And if God pronounces such judgments over his own people, it seems presumptuous to ask him to bless our nation during a seventh-inning ritual without any reference to repentance.
Many Christians divide “America” from “Washington”—we revere the founding principles of the former and deplore the arrogance and overreach of the latter. Still, as noble as some of the original goals were, and as much as God truly has blessed them, no earthly system can last long and any system can become an “idol for destruction.” America was always a mixed bag of noble ends and ignoble means, of Never Before in History but ever after in doubt and strife and continual re-imagining. I can and do pray for God to bless America, but only in a way that brings glory to Him.
To stand or not to stand? It’s good and right to love one’s country, but also to remember that we’re on a highway to our ultimate country. Where Zion and America conflict, always choose Zion—which may mean that when “God Bless America” is sung, you respectfully remain seated.