Special Report

Playing the National Anthem at a Mennonite College?

The non-Mennonite left couldn't be more appalled.

By 2.25.10

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A brouhaha has kicked up at historically Mennonite Goshen College in Indiana, where the previously banned National Anthem will now precede some school sports events. Mennonites are traditionally pacifist and separatist, which includes aversion by some to strong national loyalties, much less the stirring and rocket-filled audacity of The Star Spangled Banner. Not wanting to go too far, only instrumental versions of the anthem will play at Goshen. A prayer will follow. Spectators will not have to "honor" or "give allegiance" to the anthem but will be invited to stand. They even can sing the words on their own.

Apparently Goshen initiated the new pro-anthem policy after a process that started when talk show host Mike Gallagher began condemning the ban in 2008. "We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus -- the ultimate peacemaker -- loving all people of the world," President Jim Brenneman explained his decision in January 2010. The President's Council, in supporting the decision, emphasized they were hardly becoming flag-waving nationalists: "Playing the anthem opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique -- if need be -- as citizens in the loyal opposition on issues of deepest moral conviction, such as war, racism and human rights abuses."

Goshen has about 1,000 "peace-minded" students, though being a Mennonite or a pacifist is not required. Introducing the anthem at a traditionally pacifist school is a fascinating development when growing numbers of non-Mennonite evangelicals are increasingly adopting often radical Anabaptist stances against war and the America "empire." Opposing flags and the National Anthem has become de rigueur for some on the Evangelical Left, anxious to prove their loyalty to God's Kingdom over the earthly United States.

Most recently, Goshen's Board of Directors affirmed the Goshen President's new policy to play a "music-only version of the national anthem at select sports venues," starting in March. Apparently the President decided after a 14 month study process, with help from a National Anthem Task Force of students and faculty. Explaining its support for the anthem, the task force cited the school's "diversity" and noted that the anthem is an "assumed cultural ritual" for many of the school's "fans, students, student-athletes, and recruits." The school will next convene a symposium to ponder the anthem in the "larger context of Mennonite identity, peacemaking and civic engagement."

"One of the greatest U.S. freedoms is that we can express our faith and love of country in different ways, and we recognize that Christians differ in how to do that," Brenneman further explained in January. "Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another." He recalled that the anthem has not been a tradition at Goshen because of its "militaristic language." Presumably omitting the lyrics will avoid that obstacle. In the 1970s, Goshen decided to start flying the U.S. flag, but alongside a United Nations flag. The school in recent years has also prayed for the U.S. military, welcomed military veterans as students, encouraged voting, and celebrated the U.S. Constitution. The Mennonite Church has no official stance on the anthem of flag flying, and its schools have varying policies.

In a January chapel sermon, Brenneman outlined his policy within a larger "culture of assent," in contrast with Mennonites' traditional "culture of dissent." Until the 1980s the school was dominated by the latter, which included "nonconforming idealism, and prophetic disestablishmentarianism." He added: "There were more 'no's' than 'yeses.'" The early Mennonites and Anabaptists, in the wake of the Reformation, were dissenters, rejecting church-state union and service to the state, for which they were often persecuted. They sided with prophets who were "primarily naysayers and exclusively critical." Goshen College's history mostly aligned with traditional Mennonites who still advocated withdrawal from the "earthly system."

Brenneman approvingly cited one of his presidential predecessors, who began the flag flying policy, and who had provocatively asked: "'What right has one to prophesy, without accepting responsibility for decision-making, management and accountability?'" The traditional Mennonite separatist perspective perhaps needed maturation, the previous president had suggested, seemingly now with Brenneman's own ascent. Naysayers still are needed, the current president said. "But, I believe, at this time in Goshen's history, we need a lot more radical yea-sayers." He urged Goshen students to become diplomats, "policy wonks," "business gurus" and political leaders, advancing Christ's Kingdom and "God's Great Yes!"

Of course, the new pro-anthem policy at Goshen is not universally popular. "Naysayers" to civil loyalties are now popular not just among Mennonites and other Anabaptists but a wide smorgasbord of liberal Mainline Protestant and Evangelical Left activists. A proclamation of "Resistance to the National Anthem at Goshen College" has arisen. Though most of its public signers seem to be non-Mennonites, including Roman Catholics, it approvingly cites a "500 year old Anabaptist heritage of nonconformity."

This proclamation frets that the national anthem "glorifies war and violence for one nation's benefit," while celebrating the "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air" to "inspire patriotic fervor." It also "promotes the United States over and against other nations, violating Christian internationalism and worldwide fellowship." The proclamation complains that Goshen's attempts to be "hospitable" to American patriots are rejecting the higher call to be a "transnational body that resists the boundaries set by nations." Lest anyone miss the proclamation's own fervid anti-Americanism, it darkly warned that Goshen was "intentionally aligning itself with an entity that has engaged in militarism, oppression and imperialism since its inception."

Among the proclamation's signers is Duke University's Stanley Hauerwas, himself a devout anti-American and pacifist disciple of the late famous Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, whom Brenneman respectfully cited in his Goshen chapel sermon. Hauerwas and Yoder are responsible for popularizing their own brand of Mennonite/Anabaptist separatist zeal among Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals. To know that the national anthem is instrumentally performed occasionally at the campus of a Mennonite college must be disturbing. As one commentator forlornly asked: "Ah, Goshen, perhaps you are thinking that you could spare a few pinches of incense for Caesar after all?" But maybe Goshen is actually more theologically sophisticated than its transnational critics by recognizing the traditional Christian understanding that national loyalties, when rightly ordered, can providentially serve divine purposes.

 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.