Neatly balancing the high school that refuses to allow “Ave Maria” to be played by the school band because its unheard lyrics might offend litigious atheists in the student body, we have the indignant students at Goshen College, who are angry at their school for finally permitting “The Star Spangled Banner” to be played at sporting events. Goshen is a Mennonite institution, and the Mennonites are pacifists. Somewhere the school got the idea that the National Anthem glorifies war, and on that basis some of its students are up in arms—well, not really, since they object to that sort of thing. But they have a Facebook page, which aims to organize a protest.
When the bicentennial of the War of 1812 comes around in two years, maybe the defiantly ignorant in this country will begin filling in that huge gap in its consciousness. Many media articles covered the National Anthem flap at Goshen and quoted students like Marlys Weaver, 22, a senior from Goshen and editor of the college newspaper. “I am not in favor of the college’s decision to play the anthem,” she said. “Images of war run throughout all the verses of the anthem, and Mennonites, as pacifists, work with active and involved non-violent options.” None of the articles that I could find bothered to note that the “The Star-Spangled Banner” does not glorify war. Indeed, criticizing the Anthem for “images of war” shows a shocking deficit in American history and perspective, and the failure of our news media to help the public be informed citizens on this point is a breach of its duties as well.
Do the students of Goshen really not know that the song celebrates the survival of the nation, symbolized by the flag over Fort McHenry, as it was under attack by a foreign power? Do no Mennonite students (or newspaper reporters) understand how frighteningly close the American experiment came to ending less than 40 years after the Declaration of Independence—how only luck, a live oak-sided war ship with a brilliant captain, an inspiring First Lady, a ragtag group of Louisiana trappers, farmers, militia men and pirates under the commend of a wild-eyed frontier general named Jackson, and England’s decision that taking over America again was just too much trouble kept “Mr. Madison’s War” from guaranteeing that today’s Goshen students would be singing “God Save the Queen”?
The National Anthem is about the ideals of the United States enduring chaos and strife, something worth remembering today. It also is more than a mere song, as—well, I was going to say as every grammar school student knows, but that’s clearly not true any more. The songwriter, Francis Scott Key, witnessed what he was writing about, and was expressing his pride and relief that war had not brought his nation to its knees. The students at Goshen need not celebrate war to honor the endurance of their country, and all the good it has done since 1812.
Pacifism is a purely moral position that is also, I believe, unethical, because it excuses the pacifist from the shared duty of citizenship to assist in or support the unpleasant, dangerous, and unavoidable task of defending against military aggression and domination.* When your ignorance of your country’s history, however, prompts you to protest the National Anthem because you don’t know what the song is about, this isn’t even morally defensible. It is just poor citizenship. As for the news stories that report the controversy without explaining the truth about the song at its center, they are just more evidence that our journalists can’t tell the public what they need to know if the journalists don’t know it themselves.
* Some individuals have balanced the moral demands of their pacifist religion and the ethical requirements of citizenship during wartime spectacularly. You can read about one sterling example from W.W. II, Desmond Doss, here.