Goshen College isn’t the only school to refrain from playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at school-sponsored functions.
Eastern Mennonite University, in Virginia, and Hesston College, in Kansas, have similar policies. In fact, policies that place emphasis on the separation of church and state have historically been common in many Mennonite institutions, Goshen College professor of history Steven Nolt said Tuesday.
"It’s definitely broader than Goshen College, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the case for all Mennonites across North America," he said. "There is a lot of history in the 20th century of Mennonites from certain Mennonite groups not participating in the public Pledge of Allegiance and that sort of thing. There were even court cases that upheld the constitutionality of that."
Goshen College’s decision to return to it’s previous policy of not playing the national anthem comes after a year-long process by administrators to listen to feedback and discussion — a process that reflects how important the complex issue is to the Mennonite-based school.
The college sent out an e-survey to alumni, faculty, staff and students and received more than 4,000 responses, held four campus meetings to discuss the issue, and held nine alumni meetings across the Midwest. A "Listen and Learn" committee of 11 faculty, staff, students and members of the board of directors was also created to review the issue and make a recommendation for future action.
Richard Aguirre, director of public relations at Goshen College, said the issue is far from black and white.
"I think some in the media... have framed it as a debate between those who love country, who honor the military and respect the sacrifice of those who served in the military, and America haters on the other side," he said. "Not only is that an inaccurate framing of the issue, but it’s an offensive one to people who on this campus have in fact served in the military or had relatives who did, but for reasons of conscience don’t support playing the anthem."
Goshen College President Jim Brenneman, was unavailable to comment for this article, Aguirre said.
Goshen College listed several reasons its stakeholders both support and oppose the playing of the national anthem in an executive summary published in May.
Reasons people opposed the playing of the anthem included the idea that Goshen College was ignoring its Mennonite identity — that allegiance should be to Christ rather than country — the importance of history and tradition and the importance of non-conformity to the dominant culture, the report stated.
Many people attribute Goshen College’s reluctance to playing the anthem to the pacifist teachings of the Mennonite church. "The Star-Spangled Banner," written by Francis Scott Key, makes references to war. Aguirre believes the issue is much broader than that single aspect.
"There were a variety of reasons that some people objected to the playing of the national anthem," Aguirre said. "Saying that it is only because of that concern is not doing justice to the wide variety of views."
Reasons people supported the anthem included that it was a way to show respect for country, to welcome and show respect for non-Mennonite students, to improve community relations and to increase enrollment.
Dan Miller, Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference pastor, explained traditional Mennonite thought on the issue.
"Mennonites have traditionally thought of Christians as belonging to the people of God, and that takes precedence over a national identity," he said, adding later, "If you think about the broad sweep of history over the last 450 years, that’s been a fairly key thing for us."
Miller said he thinks Goshen College initially reconsidered its policy in an attempt to improve relationships with non-Mennonites and the local community.
"As we rub shoulders with people we want to do things that enhance the relationship," he said. "And for some people the national anthem is a pretty important item, so it felt like Goshen College was being disrespectful. So out of a desire to help that relationship (Goshen College) decided to play it."
Now that Goshen College has decided to return to not playing the "Star-Spangled Banner," Miller hopes the community will consider the decision in light of the past interactions with the school.
"I would hope that this decision doesn’t stand by itself," he said, "but is seen in the whole way in which Goshen College tries to be a good citizen and member of the community."
Aguirre agreed that Goshen College’s long history in the community may help members to respect the decision.
"Goshen College has been part of this community and has been in Elkhart County for 116 years," he said. "We have had growing, strong and cooperative relationships with our community. I think people have always understood and respected that as a college of the Mennonite church we do have specific beliefs and faith understandings that guide what we do."
The college is now considering alternatives to playing the "Star-Spangled Banner," such as playing a different song like "America the Beautiful" or "This Land is Our Land." Another alternative could be to play the national anthem along with the anthem of another country, perhaps of an international student.
An alternative should be chosen by the start of the fall semester, Aguirre said.
The campus community has learned valuable lessons through the discussions and debates that have occurred over the past year, Aguirre said.
"I believe we showed that as a community we could listen to each other with civility, humility and grace," he said. "We’ve tried to model that and make it a defining characteristic of this college. Even though there are complex issues, and we will disagree on some of those issues, we will do so with mutual love and respect."