A Divisive Anthem

Indiana is a happening state this month as we near the end of March Madness. I grew up just a few minutes from Butler University, and you might remember that Young Master Pulliam is a proud alumn. It’s a thrilling time to be a Hoosier.

On a smaller scale a few hours north of Indy, a Mennonite liberal arts college is handling its own sports-related news. Back in February, we looked at stories that covered Goshen College’s decision to play the National Anthem at sporting events. The New York Times has picked up the news and covered the anthem’s first appearance.

The story is a pretty basic, straight-forward account, and the reporter does a nice job of quoting Mennonites and non-Mennonites, as the school accepts both. I especially appreciate the detail at the top of the story of how the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi was said immediately followed the anthem. However, the story lacks a few contextual details, like whether the college is officially connected to a Mennonite denomination and how its resistance to anthems originated.

Let’s also consider the following paragraphs, which contain vague terms applied in political contexts that make no sense in this case.

The plain-living Mennonites are Christians who descended from the same 16th-century Anabaptist group as the Amish, although they are typically more worldly, having evolved over the centuries into conservative and more progressive communities.

Goshen College, with about 1,000 students, would fall into the increasingly liberal category, much to the chagrin of students like Mr. Miller.

Plain-living, worldly, conservative, progressive, liberal mean what in this context? This is a classic example of when a reporter uses political terms without making any connections to doctrine.

The reporter also explains different events leading up to the change, but her examples seem vague.

Goshen’s board of directors and college administrators had debated the merits of this change in policy for years. There was precedent: Mennonite colleges in Kansas, Ohio and other states played an instrumental version of the anthem. The Goshen News called the decision “a gesture worth embracing.”

Still, some wondered if the move, to be reviewed in a year, was not prompted more by pressure from outside groups and critics, particularly a conservative talk-radio host who singled Goshen out for ridicule three years ago, prompting a flurry of angry calls and e-mail messages to the college. There was also the issue of a declining Mennonite student population and the need to recruit beyond members of the peace church.

Why not explain who this “conservative talk-radio host” is and when the comments were made (Mike Gallagher, 2008)? That wouldn’t take up any more space in the story. Also, when did these colleges in Kansas, Ohio and other states start playing the anthem? In the last few years or over several years?

The larger problem with the story is that it lacks historical context. The reporter acknowledges that the school is known for its pacifist Mennonite traditions, but it doesn’t explain those traditions or why they exist. Do the larger Mennonite denominations offer guidance on anthems?

Near Goshen’s back yard, an Indianapolis Star story gives a few more basic details.

The college is owned by Mennonite Church USA, an overseeing body that has not taken an official position on the playing of the national anthem. Division over the issue is apparent: Two other Mennonite colleges–Eastern Mennonite University (Virginia) and Heston College (Kansas)–still refuse to play the anthem while two others–Bluffton College (Ohio) and Bethel College (Kansas) do.

…College officials admit that the continued refusal to play the national anthem may have become a barrier to some students. College enrollment peaked at more than 1,200 students in the 1970s and 1980s but “we’ve been on about a 30-year decline,” said Jodi Beyeler, a spokeswoman.

Still, both stories could look more at the theology in the Mennonite tradition to see why its uncomfortable with the National Anthem in the first place. Exploring the roots of the school’s history would go a long way in explaining the tension between love of country and love of God. Just because a story is newsworthy, it doesn’t mean history is obsolete.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    …having evolved over the centuries into conservative and more progressive communities.

    Ah, yes. Anything “progressive” — i.e. politically liberal — is the pinnacle of evolution. So sayeth that fine mainstream publication, The New York Times.

  • Jerry

    Chris, you left out the conservative evolution as well – I don’t know why.

  • Chris Bolinger

    According to the Times, progressive is more evolved than conservative.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Quite apart from the complaints above (which are legitimate, to be sure), in a high-profile story about Mennonites I would like to see at least a brief discussion of what Mennonites actually are.

    What I mean by that is the fact that (and both SPB and the article mentioned it briefly) that Mennonite=/=Amish, which is a very common misconception, especially for those people outside of areas, like mine, which have high concentrations of Amish and Mennonites. To be sure, some Mennonites (Old Order) are virtually indistinguishable from the Amish in dress/lifestyle, but the majority of Mennonites look and dress just like anyone else, and practice the Mennonite edict of ‘simple living’ in different ways and with different levels of rigorousness. I think that this might be what the article meant when saying “conservative and progressive” communities, but this is unclear to anyone not intimately familiar with Mennonites.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Good comments, everyone. Jon, I think you are right. Reporters assume more than they should.

  • John Wickey

    Someone trying to write about this might want to try to understand why Mennonites of 50-70 years ago did not vote, did not serve in a public office, did not enter the military and did not join a labor union, among other points of separation from the outside world. They would have a better understanding of why the playing of the National Anthem at a sporting event represents something of a denial of a portion of Mennonite identity. It has nothing to do with Pacifism and everything to do with being a separate people. A Goshen College alumnus.