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A History Lesson for the President of Goshen College

Filed in Religion, Social IssuesTags: Christianity, Conservatism, Constitutional Rights

A recent RedState post detailed the valiant efforts of conservative students at Goshen College (Goshen, IN) to reverse the school's decision to ban the National Anthem. Apparently, the President's Council at the school deemed the lyrics of the song ("the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air") to be incompatible with the school's pacifist Mennonite beliefs.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending, as the students, led by Sophomore Ryan Troyer, convinced the President's Council to reconsider its stance. The school will now allow an instrumental version of the song to be played before sporting events. However, I take issue with the views expressed by the school's president, Jim Brenneman. I believe Mr. Brenneman is in need of a history lesson.

The statement announcing the decision of the President's Council to permit instrumental versions of the National Anthem includes the following statement:

One concern that many Mennonites have had with the playing of the national anthem has been that it places love for country above love for God. But, Brenneman said, "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."

As I will demonstrate, the concern that the playing of the national anthem "places love for country above love for God" belies an ignorance of both the historical context and the religious connotation in the content of the anthem.

Regarding the lyrics of The Star Spangled Banner, I remind Mr. Brenneman of the backstory of the poem that would become our National Anthem:

Meanwhile, Britain’s naval force, buoyed by its earlier successful attack on Alexandria, Virginia, was poised to strike Fort McHenry and enter Baltimore Harbor.  At 6:30 AM on September 13, 1814, Admiral Cochrane’s ships began a 25-hour bombardment of the fort. Rockets whistled through the air and burst into flame wherever they struck. Mortars fired 10- and 13-inch bombshells that exploded overhead in showers of fiery shrapnel.  Major Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry and its defending force of one thousand troops, ordered his men to return fire, but their guns couldn’t reach the enemy’s ships. When British ships advanced on the afternoon of the 13th, however, American gunners badly damaged them, forcing them to pull back out of range. All through the night, Armistead’s men continued to hold the fort, refusing to surrender. That night British attempts at a diversionary attack also failed, and by dawn they had given up hope of taking the city.  At 7:30 on the morning of September 14, Admiral Cochrane called an end to the bombardment, and the British fleet withdrew. The successful defense of Baltimore marked a turning point in the War of 1812. Three months later, on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent formally ended the war.

Star Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner: the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry the morning after the Brittish bombardment during the War of 1812, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become our national Anthem

Because the British attack had coincided with a heavy rainstorm, Fort McHenry had flown its smaller storm flag throughout the battle. But at dawn, as the British began to retreat, Major Armistead ordered his men to lower the storm flag and replace it with the great garrison flag. As they raised the flag, the troops fired their guns and played “Yankee Doodle” in celebration of their victory. Waving proudly over the fort, the banner could be seen for miles around—as far away as a ship anchored eight miles down the river, where an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key had spent an anxious night watching and hoping for a sign that the city—and the nation—might be saved.

...

Friends of Dr. Beanes asked Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key to join John S. Skinner, the U.S. government’s agent for dealing with British forces in the Chesapeake, and help secure the release of the civilian prisoner.  They were successful; however, the British feared that Key and Skinner would divulge their plans for attacking Baltimore, and so they detained the two men aboard a truce ship for the duration of the battle. Key thus became an eyewitness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

This flag - the Stars and Stripes, the Star-Spangled Banner - whose against-all-odds presence inspired Francis Scott key that fateful morning, represented the triumph of freedom over the forces of war. See the third verse:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Thus, in its mention of "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air," the poem is not romanticizing the war, but rather celebrating the triumph of America - and the freedom our contry represents - against the onslaught of its attackers. Far from glorifying war, Key is praising God for defending "the land of the free and the home of the brave" with which He has blessed us. See the fourth verse:

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

In fact, it is from this poem in which are rooted not only our national anthem and the symbolism of Old Glory, but also our national motto: "In God We Trust." Far from placing love of country before love of God, the song glorifies God as "the Power that hath made and preserved" our nation, and who has blessed our nation with victory and peace.

If history has proven anything, it has proven that peace requires constant vigilance and struggle against those who would oppress. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Even as peacemakers, war can be imposed upon us - and as reprehensible as we may find war to be, those who fight on our behalf do so with a just cause.

The Goshen statement further reads:

In addition, the national anthem is one way that is commonly understood to express an allegiance to the nation of one's citizenship. The college has shown that in the past in other ways: 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.

It is counter-productive to pray for all men and women serving our country, while at the same time decrying any and all reference to the means they must emply to protect our country and our freedoms - including our freedom to worship God and to live as peacemakers.

Further, I have problem with this statement [emphasis added]:

Finally, the decision was made with the belief that "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," according to the statement by the President's Council announcing their decision.

While the intrinsic tie between the national anthem and war is understood, what, pray tell, does the national anthem have anything to do with racism and human rights abuses? What opportunity does the playing of the national anthem provide for prophetic critique in loyal opposition to racism and human rights abuses? This statement implies that the national anthem represents such matters - an implication that I find to be abhorrent.

The national anthem represents the best of America: a nation founded on the principle that our rights derive from our Creator, and that all men are created equal, and have equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More American blood has been shed protecting and defending those rights - not only of Americans, but of all people the world over - than that of any other nation in history.

In closing, Mr. Brenneman, I applaud both your willingness to hold open dialogue on the matter of the playing of the national anthem, and your willingness to reconsider your stance. I urge you, however, to temper similar decisions in the future with the sober remembrance of the unique blessing of God that is our great nation, as well as the great sacrifices of our forefathers that have given us the freedoms we exercise - and often take for granted - today.