Allegiance and respect: Goshen College decides to play anthem beginning in March

Allegiance and respect: Goshen College decides to play anthem beginning in March

The Goshen College President’s Council announced last Friday that beginning in March, an instrumental version of the national anthem will be played at select sporting events followed by a prayer.

More than a year ago, a spectator at a Goshen women’s basketball game expressed his disappointment that the college didn’t play the national anthem before sporting events. The issue received national coverage after the fan forwarded the e-mail discussions to talk show hosts such as Mike Gallagher. Although this opened a discussion about patriotism and allegiance at Goshen College, it’s not the first time the college has confronted the issue.

In an interview, former Goshen College president Lawrence Burkholder recalled a time during the Vietnam War in the 1970s when a similar issue of allegiance and respect was dealt with: as a Mennonite college, should Goshen College fly the U.S. flag?

“There were lots of feelings [involved],” Burkholder said.

He remembers walking into his office one morning and seeing the flag neatly folded up on his desk: a sign to him that not everyone agreed with the college’s decision to fly the U.S. flag on campus. If you look out any number of windows facing west on campus, the flag remains.

33 years later, Goshen College is dealing with the same issue. As a Mennonite College, are the college’s Anabaptist theology and allegiance to God undermined if the national anthem is not included on campus due to its militaristic lyrics? Is it disrespectful to the nation if teams and fans choose not to play it?

In the spring of 2009, the President’s Council requested that a task force, made up of students, faculty and administrators, gather to explore the issue. They discussed it as a group while welcoming input from Student Senate in addition to gathering thoughts from faculty and staff meetings. A campus town hall meeting was held where students, community and alumni voiced their opinions.

“We have a diverse campus,” said Bill Born, the current Dean of Students, “that represents different faith perspectives.” In fact, Goshen College’s student body includes 40 Christian denominations as well as several other religions. Taking into consideration these different perspectives, the President’s Council reached their decision based on the following four beliefs, as quoted from Jim Brenneman’s letter to the student body:

• “We believe that 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.
• We believe playing the national anthem is one way that is commonly understood to express an allegiance to the nation of one’s citizenship. We have shown that in the past in a variety of other ways, such as flying a flag on campus, praying for all men and women serving our country, welcoming military veterans as students and employees, annually celebrating the U.S. Constitution and encouraging voting.
• 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.
• We believe 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.”

The decision will be put into action in March at the start of the spring sports season. A flag will be present as the instrumental version of the anthem plays, and it will be followed by a prayer. Fans will be asked to stand respectfully, but they are not required to sing or place their hand over their heart unless they feel comfortable doing so.

Tim Demant, the athletic director at Goshen College, supports both the process and the resolution. He believes that “this decision will have a positive effect on how many outside of GC look at us as it will begin to break down some of the negative impressions many people have of GC as being unpatriotic and anti-American.” Demant went on to say that the playing of the national anthem will “definitely have a positive effect” on the college’s ability to recruit since some coaches have dealt with negative feedback due to the absence of the anthem.

According to Jim Caskey, the vice president for institutional advancement, alumni funding was not an issue that played a role in the decision. The 3.9 million dollars that was donated by the public in 2008 ($1.9 million of which was donated by alumni) came as a result of “supporters [who] are deeply invested in the students and mission of the college, beyond any one issue,” Caskey said.

When asked how the choice to play the national anthem might affect enrollment, Lynn Jackson, the vice president for enrollment management,  did not wish to comment. However, she stands behind the decision of the President’s Council.

Not everyone is supportive of the decision. John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen College, is saddened by the choice to play the anthem.

Planning is underway for a campus meeting to be held next week to foster continued conversation and dialogue about the national anthem. President Brenneman will be leading this session. Please watch for details in the Communicator on Friday and Monday.

As discussion continues, Roth reminds us that our “commitment to peacemaking doesn’t fall solely on this issue.” He encourages us to “keep finding the balance between courageously expressing Christian convictions that may go against the grain of popular culture with a more gracious embrace of the community in which we live.”

Kelsey Shue
Written by Kelsey Shue

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    February 09, 2010

    February 8, 2010

    Dear President Jim Brenneman,

    Our Sunday school class at Akron Mennonite Church read the January 22, 2010 press release of Goshen College. All of the members expressed sadness, regret and disappointment at the announcement of the decision of GC to reverse its position and play the national anthem before sporting events. Many of us will write requesting GC to reverse its decision. This is my plea.

    I was proud of GC when they faced down the wrath of Mike Gallagher and his many supporters in 2008. It felt very right to have GC identified with the peace position and good to hear voices of support from GC students that were not Mennonite. I failed by not sending a strong voice and pledge of support. It never entered my mind that the position of GC on this issue would change, but I should not have taken that for granted.

    Symbols are important to define who we are. We don’t fly the flag in the front of our Mennonite churches, and most Mennonites don’t have the flag in their homes, places of business and institutions. Some suffered during 9/11 for their failure to “fly the flag.” That symbol defines us as a people of peace. GC playing the national anthem will not be seen as a symbol of welcome to guests, but as a victory for conservative talk show radio.

    The US spends more on war than all of the other nations on earth combined. Mennonites make almost no protest. A small symbol of protest was the nonviolent action of GC in not playing the national anthem. Nonviolent action refers to methods of protest in which actionists, without violence, refuse to do certain things that they are expected to do. GC not doing what was expected turned into a powerful protest. The fact that it was attacked so fiercely was a powerful statement to its effectiveness. What else that GC has done in the past decade has been reported on Fox news?

    The US is at war using a mercenary army. The US would not be able to fight its wars if all young men and women were conscripted into military service. That lesson was learned during the Vietnam War. Antioch College, the birthplace of the revolution, where much of the opposition to the Vietnam War coalesced, recently closed. Symbols are more important than ever. That peace is even an option is so foreign to Americans they don’t understand that the national anthem might not be played. Not playing it was a powerful statement. We have lost our voice for peace.

    GC’s decision, after 114 years, to play the national anthem indicates its departure from the historic Mennonite peace position. It will be difficult for GC to attract support and students from Mennonite families that have a concern for peace.

    Edward Miller ’67 (third generation GC grad and father of two fourth generation grads)

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