Anthem wars

We’re certainly getting our fill of “The Star Spangled Banner” from the Winter Games, but a private college in Indiana will soon begin playing the National Anthem before sporting events for the first time.

The most solid coverage comes from the Goshen News and Associated Press. Here’s the AP take on how the college recently announced that it will begin play an instrumental version of the “Star Spangled Banner” before campus sporting events.

The decision to reverse the ban on the anthem is aimed at making students and visitors outside the faith feel more welcome, but it has roiled some at the 1,000-student college who feel the song undermines the church’s pacifist message and puts love for county above love for God.

Since college President Jim Brenneman announced the decision in January, more than 900 people have joined the Facebook group “Against Goshen College Playing National Anthem,” hundreds have signed an online petition protesting the move, and letters sent to administrators and the campus newspaper have overwhelmingly voiced opposition to the change.

I do wish reporters didn’t feel like they have to point to a Facebook page to make you feel like there’s tension involved. In a few years, it’ll come across as “OMG, look at the AOL chat forums that are forming.” In a column, Mark Tooley writes about a seemingly more substantial dissent from people outside of the college, including Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas.

Even without a larger controversy, the story is still compelling. Other reporters should take note how reporter Carly Everson does a nice job of fitting the God vs. country ideas in a larger context.

Mennonites, whose church is rooted in a 16th-century movement in Europe known as Anabaptism, also believe singing a “hymn of allegiance” like the national anthem implies a deeper loyalty to country rather than to God, Roth said. However, Mennonite Church USA–which represents the largest and most mainstream group of Mennonites in the U.S.–does not specifically prohibit the anthem.

Goshen College officials say discussions about whether to change the policy began in September 2008 when the athletic department asked Brenneman to reconsider the school’s stance. Brenneman said the teams often bore the brunt of criticism about the policy because the anthem’s absence is most visible at sporting events, where it has become part of American culture.

Of course, colleges generally don’t overturn decades-old traditions for no reason. The reporter connects the decision to conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher, who featured the issue on his show. However, the reporter does not explain what was said on the show, so I suppose we’re supposed to guess?

Nevertheless, I’m glad the story is being covered because it involves ideas about higher education, love of country, love of God, and then where they fit in some hierarchy. I’d love to know whether other Mennonite high schools or college play the Star Spangled Banner or how they’ve resolved this issue. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Ed merely mention the hullabaloo, but where’s the substance from the higher ed pros?

The top image shows the Oude Kerk, a church in Amsterdam. The second image came from Wikimedia commons.

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  • Mike Hickerson

    Someone should call James K. A. Smith at Calvin. His recent book Desiring the Kingdom has a section dealing precisely with the religious implications of combining sports and patriotism, as well as an entire chapter on Christian college education.

  • tipi tim

    in the jesusradicals article it says that bethel college in north newton, kansas and bluffton university in bluffton, ohio play the anthem. for a little bit of context; they were part of the former General Conference Mennonite Church which was the mennonite group that went from north germany and netherlands to russia, prussia and ukraine in the 18th century before coming to the us and canada in several waves from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries. the GC Mennonites were generally less separatist than the former Mennonite Church Mennonites who came from south Germany and Switzerland (also the Alsace)the us during the 18th century. some of these people moved to ontario after the american revolution because it was easier to not participate in the monarchy than it was to not participate in the new democracy. in 2002 the 2 groups which were both organized bi-nationally reorganized into 2 groups organized by country so there is now Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada; a move that was made for business reasons and opposed for theological reasons e.g. when the denominational boundaries are the same as the nation’s we begin to forget that the church is international. i hope that explains more than it confuses.

    so far as i know Goshen is the first school from the former Mennonite Church to play the anthem. at my high school (lancaster mennonite in lancaster, pa) i think they started games with a prayer but i was no athlete and that was some years ago…

  • tipi tim

    also for what it’s worth, flags are rare in mennonite schools and the Pledge of Allegiance is not recited. i remember one time in 6th grade where there was a special event of some sort (maybe we watched the president on tv? i can’t remember what the event was) and the pledge was a part of this event. the teacher talked about it beforehandand made it clear that we could recite the pledge if we wanted to or not recite it and some of my classmates refrained, some of them would even have been punished by their parents had they said the pledge.

  • Steve

    You’re right – joining a Facebook group is almost the definition of “slacktivism” – it requires very little personal effort from the individual involved and I don’t see it as indicating a great depth of feeling about the issue.

  • Matt

    I think there is a separate journalistic issue here -namely, the hypocrisy of Mary Tooley.

    The Institute on Religion and Democracy has always claimed to resist liberalizing tendencies in mainline Protestantism and has always been accused by its critics of being more interested in promoting right-wing politics and pro-America sentiments than in orthodox theology as such.

    But in the case of Goshen College, we have a clear instance where a (theologically) conservative position (the centuries-old Mennonite tradition of resistance to patriotism) clashes with a (politically) conservative reverence for the American flag and American state. And when push comes to shove, Tooley sides with conservative politics against conservative theology.

    I find that very interesting.

  • Dave

    I do wish reporters didn’t feel like they have to point to a Facebook page to make you feel like there’s tension involved.

    I don’t understand this hostility to using social networks as a source of social facts.

    What’s the GetReligion hook here? Was the religious aspect handled in tone-deaf manner?

  • David

    “Matt” is not correct to describe “resistance to patriotism” as a “(theologically) conservative position” in the Mennonite community.

    Traditionally, Mennonites (specifically the ones who founded Goshen) were “separated from the world,” nonconformists. The Anthem issue would not have arisen, since there would not have been interscholastic sports. It is true that different communities had different standards for participation in the Pledge and the Anthem. E.g., in the 60s, my parents permitted me to say the Pledge, but not put my hand over the heart, since they interpreted that as a form of swearing. But this was never given the “anti-patriotic,” anti-American interpretation it was later given. (Once Lancaster County, PA Mennonites entered politics and began voting, they have become notoriously Republican.)

    Beginning in the sixties, the “young turks” began to reinterpret the “nonresistance” as pacifism. This allowed them to “have their cake” (be “good” Mennonites) and “eat it too” (be accepted among the progressive academic elites, specifically the New Left). It is this pacifist interpretation that is protesting the Anthem.

    So Mr. (Mark, not “Mary”) Tooley is not being hypocritical. From his standpoint, this is exactly the sort of leftist reinterpretation of religious tradition that he has always protested against.

  • Matt


    Call it nonresistance if you want, the fact of the matter is it is hard to imagine Menno Simmons singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Goshen’s tradition of not playing the anthem was very much in keeping with their Anabaptist heritage and yet, when the demands of American patriotism collide with a centuries-old theology, Tooley sides with patriotism against theology. If that isn’t hypocrisy on his part, I don’t know what is.

  • David


    And it’s hard to imagine Menno cheering on some sportsmen trying to defeat their opponents on the field of battle, I mean play. (Sports is intended to cultivate the very skills and attitudes necessary in war.) Indeed, it is hard to imagine Menno participating in a school that is intermeshed with the culture and policies of higher academia.

    Finally, I deny that this theology is “centuries-old.” The pacifist rendering of Mennonite practice has been invented in my life-time. The Schleitheim Confession, the oldest confession of the Swiss Brethren, rejects both participation in the magistracy (pacifism is part of the “worldly” power-game) and attendance at “all Catholic and Protestant works and church services, meetings and church attendance, drinking houses.” Sports is the modern version of the old European “drinking houses,” a place of “worldly” socialization.

    Either one separates completely from “the world,” or one accepts the price of compromise.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for weighing in, everyone. Matt and David, I merely linked to Tooley to show that he pointed to a larger debate going on. He will naturally take an opinionated stance, but please focus on the journalism in the mainstream reports. Thanks.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Dave, I’m not hostile to Facebook or other social networks. I use them like everyone else does. I was suggesting that maybe they aren’t the best indicators that there’s tension involved. A fan page hardly means anything, since you don’t have to attend a meeting or make phone calls or organize anything. All you have to do is click a button. I don’t feel strongly about this point, though, and could be persuaded otherwise.

    My point was that there’s some good coverage out there, it could’ve been a little stronger (explaining Gallagher, for example), and that the usual higher ed reporters should’ve been on this story.

  • Matt


    Fair enough. To me, the most interesting journalistic issue here is the way in which not all religion stories fit the lazy and simplistic “left vs right” paradigm so beloved by journalists. When a (politically) conservative radio talk show host attacks a historically Mennonite school for doing something very much in keeping with its heritage, the usual categories get scrambled. I find it both entertaining and depressing.

  • tipi tim

    an up close look can be found here at the mennonite weekly review

    and an editorial here with some more information