Last Wednesday, Nov. 4, over thirty students and faculty gathered for a town hall meeting in Newcomer to discuss the new proposal to allow an instrumental version of the national anthem to be played before sporting events. Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies, and Ross Peterson-Veatch, associate academic dean, facilitated conversation.
The purpose of the meeting was solely for campus conversation.
Schrock-Shenk said, “None of us have the whole truth, we all only have pieces of it.”
A number of students at the meeting said they would be more comfortable if a patriotic song, such as "America the Beautiful," were to be played in place of the anthem; even without lyrics, the national anthem is still associated with the military.
Steve Wiktorwski, head coach of women’s basketball, said that "America the Beautiful" was played before a few basketball games a number of years ago, and that there were just as many complaints about playing the substitute as there were for not playing anything.
According to Wiktorwski, the athletics department has to deal with complaints all the time about not playing the anthem.
“Whatever we decide, we need to have a united philosophy about why we take this stance,” he said. “At the very least, we need some help with how to handle this.”
A number of students and faculty at the meeting struggled with what it means to be hospitable—does it require compromising identity?
Doug Schirch, associate professor of chemistry, said, “Hospitality is very important, and I apologize for the times members of the campus community from other faith backgrounds are made to feel their opinions are unwelcome here. But I’m not familiar with having to give up religious convictions in order to be hospitable.”
He likened the situation to asking a Jewish school to serve pork so visitors would be more comfortable.
Questions about the differences of flying the U.S. flag on campus and singing the national anthem to the flag also arose.
Lane Miller, a 2009 alumnus, said, of the flag on campus, "A flag symbolizes citizenship, something which I value, but the anthem indicates nationalism. I do not bind myself with a national culture that I'm not comfortable with."
John Roth, professor of history, said, “ As a pacifist, I feel a burden to make it clear that I don’t disdain my country. I have no difficulty calling myself a patriot. I can stand with respect and listen to the anthem being played, but there is something about turning and collectively singing to an image [the flag] that feels like idolatry.”
If the anthem were to be played prior to a sporting event, a number of students at the meeting said they would either not stand, or choose to arrive after the anthem was played.
A distinct separation between Mennonites and non-Mennonites on campus was acknowledged, as well as the separation between athletes and non-athletes.
But this isn’t to say that the issue of the national anthem is strictly a religious-based issue; some non-Mennonite students at the meeting said they thought the college should not play the anthem, while other Mennonite institutions, such as Bethel College in Newton, Kan. and Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio, do play the national anthem.
Tim Demant, athletic director, closed the meeting with a call to be more considerate of the language we use.
“While listening to people talk tonight, the idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ was very prevalent, with people saying things like ‘our tradition,’ ‘our campus,’ ‘our heritage.’ We invite others to come to the college, but call the non-Mennonites ‘them.’”
Demant said that roughly 45 percent of students are not Mennonite, and many feel on the outside.
“I am not calling us to abandon the ‘we,’ but to reconsider who ‘we’ is,” said Demant. “This issue is much bigger than the national anthem.”
As of Monday, Nov. 9, the president’s council had not met since the town hall meeting. There will still be further processing and conversation before the council makes any decision.