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.”