An American Religion

By Richard D. Hecht   |   November 2, 2021

In Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball, he talks with Buck O’Neil, for whom baseball’s Lifetime Achievement Award is named. He played, scouted, and managed for seven decades. O’Neil was the batting and hitting champion of the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1930s and 1940s in the Negro Leagues in its heyday and a teammate of Satchel Paige. He was the first African American hired to coach in big league baseball. Burns asked O’Neil what he had learned in his lifetime of baseball about the American national pastime. He smiled and said, “It is a religion. For me. You understand.”

For 47 years I taught in the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB. I taught courses on the history of Judaism, on religion and culture, and after Walter Capps ran for Congress, I taught the course that he began in 1978 on the experiences of veterans of the Vietnam War. So, what have I learned in my lifetime of studying religion?

The editor of the Montecito Journal has given me an opportunity to answer that question in the pages of the Journal, as an exploration of our religions here where we live.

One of the most important things I have learned is that there are two ways to think about religion. First, we can study and learn about religious traditions in their histories and in their contemporary settings, traditions like Islam or Hinduism.

But there is a second way to think about religion. Religion is like the atmosphere. It is all around us, always imprinting itself on how we understand our worlds beyond the mosque, the temple, the church, the gurdwara, the convent, or the ashram. This second form of religion is the thick network of symbols and values that we use to navigate the world. There is always a sacred quotidian that is providing meaning.

 In 1967, Robert Bellah, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, published a very influential article titled “American Civil Religion.” He began by taking note of how President John F. Kennedy had referred to God three times in his inaugural address. We take it for granted now that presidents and many politicians invoke the name God as they close their addresses. But, in 1961, it was comparatively rare and in the case of JFK there was the simmering issue of whether he as a Catholic could be president and independent from Rome.

What caught Bellah’s attention was that the President had used the word “God” in a completely non-sectarian way. A Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim could identify with the God that the President summoned to guide the nation. There was no necessary theological configuration that was attached to the God he spoke about. For example, in JFK’s closure he said, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but know that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Our civil religion borrowed from the religious traditions that came to the United States so smoothly that average Americans see no conflict between them. Civil religion has all the dimensions of traditional religion, it has powerful narratives that construct our history, rituals, doctrines that shape who we are as citizens, and ethics that ground law and custom.

All of us carry our civil religious identity. Consider the $1 bill that is in everyone’s billfold and the seal of the United States. Reading from left to right, we see the depiction of an unfinished pyramid above which floats a divine all-seeing eye. The pyramid is situated in an arid desert and its lowest level of blocks contain in Roman numerals, 1776. The desert and the pyramid immediately recall the Exodus narrative and the Israelites’ 40-year journey to the land of Canaan, now a new land of Canaan where the nation would build itself. God’s providence over the nation’s destiny is provided by the Latin inscriptions, annuit coeptis, “He [God] has favored our undertakings” and novus ordo seclorum, “a new order of the ages.”

The inscription “In God We Trust,” long the motto of the nation that was added to our currency by Congress in the mid-1950s, connects this sacred history to the symbolic character of the nation itself. At the center of the obverse is the eagle holding in its right talon the olive branch and in its left, 13 arrows, the symbol of military power, suggesting by right over left, the nation prefers peace over war, but we will defend ourselves! The eagle is shielded by the flag and in its beak holds the banner e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.”

Buck O’Neil connected baseball to our American civil religion. But recall just a line or two from John Updike’s poem “Baseball.” To those who think baseball is easy, it’s lazy, the poet writes, easy “until you stand up to the plate/and see a fastball sailing inside,/an inch from your chin…” And some of those relief pitchers’ and closers’ fastballs are clocked at over 100 mph! A baseball is only nine inches in circumference.

We have heard countless times that baseball is our “national pastime.” These weeks in October that began with the wildcard play-in games, then the league playoffs, then the league championships, and now the World Series, are the sacred time of that “national pastime.” We often think that “pastime” is a nice way of saying something like leisure time, a way of relaxing, a way to escape our everyday worries. But anyone who caught a glimpse of the faces of fans in stadiums or experienced the excitement that has come down to the last pitch in the last inning of the last game of a series knows the seriousness of national pastime.

Perhaps we have forgotten that pastime really is “past time.” Consider Doris Kearns Goodwin’s extraordinary memoir Wait Till Next Year (2009) that fuses baseball and family. In the very first chapter, Goodwin tells us how her father lovingly taught her to keep score, a completely obsessional, complicated with almost infinite detail recording of every aspect of a game. But Goodwin’s experience is by no means unique. It is the paradigmatic story of learning baseball as children. The past time really means that we return to the past and like any other religious ritual are recreated as we were in the beginning. Baseball is a ritual of renewal in our civil religion.

Among those who have understood that baseball is at the heart of who we are as Americans was A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Renaissance literature professor and president of Yale University, before becoming President of the National League, and for a few short months before his death, Commissioner of Major League Baseball. In his A Great and Glorious Game (1998), he cut directly to the heart of this ritual of our American civil religion. Baseball was grounded in the narrative of America, an enactment of freedom, individually and as a people. There is a perfect symmetry in baseball predicated on threes and fours, like 27 total outs in nine innings, that structures every aspect of the game and perhaps most importantly, the diamond and the field, everything divided into exact measurements. There are deep patterns of order in the game. Entering the field is to enter a perfected world. Religious rituals are always about perfection, controlling the temporal and spatial environment so that there are no imperfections.

At the center of this ritual space is a heroic struggle. There are teams in baseball, but it is really a ritual of individuals who seem to do impossible feats. Consider the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson’s three home runs on three first pitches in the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers. That the individual excels with the teammates is perhaps one of our civil religion’s most important doctrinal principles.

But heroic individuals don’t always triumph, and baseball is also about losing.  Consider again Updike’s poem, “…Baseball was invented in America, where beneath/the good cheer and sly jazz the chance/of failure is everybody’s right, /beginning with baseball.” So, after the Dodgers won their last regular season game and finished one game behind the Giants in the National League’s Western Division, Max Scherzer, the Dodgers’ ace right-hander told the press, quoting Tom Hanks in the film A League of their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball.”


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