Citizenship, Ignorance, and The Star Spangled Banner

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.

14 thoughts on “Citizenship, Ignorance, and The Star Spangled Banner

  1. “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.”

    Pacifists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. unethical? Excused from the dangerous and unavoidable task of defending against military aggression and domination?

    I think the students at Goshen may have a better handle on history than you, sir.

    • Accomplishing noble and appropriate goals non-violently is obviously ethical, moral, and effective. Holding to a moral principle that if applied universally would lead to terrible consequences is not ethical, because ethics has to deal with the world as it is.

      Pacifism and non-violence are not synonymous; I think it is questionable that either King or Gandhi were true pacifists. Gandhi, in fact, used WWII as leverage against Britain, essentially withholding Indian support for the Britain’s war effort until Britain agreed to Indian independence. This was a profoundly pragmatic stance. and arguably an unethical one (“Give us our freedom or we stand by and let Hitler over-run Europe” is extortion), but unless Gandhi was lying, he was prepared to support the war effort against the Nazis once India was free. That doesn’t sound like a true pacifist to me. If you’re a pacifist, you can’t pick and choose wars to support.

      Phillip Berrigan gave a fatuous interview in which he invoked Gandhi and argued that WWII didn’t disprove the validity of pacifism because “non-violent resistance wasn’t tried.” Gandhi was successful because his non-violent tactics were directed against a society that had a moral compass. Hitler would have simply had a Gandhi killed.

      Pacifists hold to a moral ideal knowing that the ideal only can work in a world where everyone shares it, and presumably knowing that it never will. This permits moral grandstanding, sincere, but still unethical because the position is divorced from reality. What would the world look like today if all of the US had been committed to pacifism? An honest answer to that question shows that pacifism on a grand scale would have led to infinitely more human pain and the degradation of the world’s culture, and conduct that predictably makes things worse for human beings is unethical.

      I know many are offended by the assertion that a moral position is unethical (opposition to gay marriage is such a position as well), but in the case of pacifism, it’s an easy call.

  2. I had a friend who was a pacifist and went to Japan to study history. The more he studied, however, the more difficult it became to be a pacifist. Eventually he decided that pacifism was the philosophy of a coward wrapped up in high moral language.

    He explained using an extreme example. Assume a true pacifist teacher is teaching his elementary school class. A deranged man comes in wielding a knife and begins stabbing the children. A true pacifist would ask him to stop and would begin to explain why his actions were wrong, but would not physically stop him. He would allow all of the children to be killed and, indeed, himself to be killed rather than resort to violence.

    The strong have an obligation to protect the weak. Allowing the weak to be trampled by the strong because you claim you are above that sort of thing is cowardice.

  3. Pacifism is an important example of how abstract philosophy can be useful but is misplaced in real world situations. It can also be distinguished from the situation of conscientious objectors many of whom serve in non-combat, and dangerous, roles during wartime. You just reminded me about Desmond Doss, whom I wrote about at

    I just added the link to the main post as well.

  4. Another example from a prominent advocate of non-violence: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:24)

    His chief advocate had similar views: “He who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:2-4)

    Just a thought, mind you.

    Meanwhile, can we start a movement to ban the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the grounds that its melody (“The Anacreontic Song”) is notoriously unsingable, and particularly subject to butchering by modern entertainers?

    • I’ve heard YOU sing it pretty well.
      When it is sung well…a la Whitney Houston’s famous rendition…The SSB is more stirring than any of the alternatives. It is a terrible group sing. I do think the band and orchestral versions can be awfully good.
      As I was writing the post, I was wondering how long it would take you to use the opportunity to lobby for “America the Beautifu/” Me, I like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which wouldn’t make it at that high school OR Goshen.

  5. Jack,
    This isn’t so say that I object to your characterization of the whole debacle, but how is this an ethical issue? The Mennonites in question may be ignorant of history and hold strange philosophical notions about human nature, but such is their right as Americans.

    Is it unethical for Mormons to believe the silly idea that the Garden of Eden was in Upstate New York, or even Muslims for believing Muhammed was carried to heaven on a flying horse? From a purely scientific point of view both ideas are every bit as idiotic as pacifism, yet you’ve never denounced either one. One could also just as easily argue (borrowing from Mr. Fuller’s example) that Christ’s axiom regarding the sword would be just as unethical were it to be applied universally.

    My intent is not to criticize any one belief over another, simply to suggest that a strange idea isn’t the same as an unethical one. Goshen is a private, religious institution (both of which are protected by the constitution) and therefore they have every moral and ethical right to believe in whatever they choose so long as it doesn’t actively hurt others or deprive them of their own rights.

    I’ve always appreciated your approach to ethical matters and, even when I disagree, highly respect your views, but in this case I fear you may be treading into murky waters. Arguing the validity of belief systems in ethical terms is a dangerous precedent for the Scoreboard.

    Something to consider ..


    • Neil: Actually there are two ethical issues, as I see them: 1) The obligations of diligence, responsibility and citizenship of anyone to know the history of one’s National Anthem, especially before you protest its contents and 2) the media’s incompetent coverage, which misses this issue entirely.

      Protesting the Anthem because of a vague sense of its “images” without knowing what the images refer to is like the those who want to ban “Huckleberry Finn” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” because they use the term “Nigger.” I would like to see our culture establish an ethical standard that you can expres any opinion you want, dumb as you like, but if you start advocating action based on it, you have an ethical obligation to know what you are talking about. And all citizens have a duty to know the basics of our history, out of basic respect for the country, its culture, and those who went before.

      That’s the ethics angle, as I see it.

  6. Jack,
    I’ll concede your point about the media, but I’m still unsure as to where you derive the idea that it’s the ehtical obligation of a citizenry to know the history and traditions of their country? None of the original social contract thinkers (with the possible exception of Rousseau) spoke directly of such an obligaion nor is it to be found in our own Constitution. Arguing in favor of a more educated public is one thing, but demanding it is something else entirely.

    History is replete with examples of people who advocated action based on what later turned out to be false or misinterpreted information, but that doesn’t necessarily make them unethical. Besides, information isn’t always straght-forward and objective, so arguing that people should “know what the hell they’re talking about” is akin to saying they should agree with you. Their are two (or more) sides to every issue with everyone thinking the “truth” is one their side but they can’t all be right in that assumption. So who are the unethical ones?

    The events leading up to and surrounding the War of 1812 weren’t nearly as cut-and-dried as you made them out to be; and an argument could be made in favor of a more pacifistic approach. This isn’t to say that’s my view necessarily, only that one who holds such a view isn’t necessarily wrong. Or are they?


  7. Neil, the writings of Jefferson, Madison and even Adam Smith make it clear—and I think it IS clear—that democracy requires responsible civic engagement by its citizens, which requires knowledge of how ones’ government works, what it is doing and what the context is. Surely you concede that it is impossible to be a responsible citiz3en without knowing what you are a citizen of? The duties of citizenship (for example, cannot be met without an understanding of history, and patriotism, a duty of citizen ship, certainly must include an understanding of what the national anthem means!

    One does not have to agree with the engagement in the War of 1812, which indeed WAS a stupid war, to agree that once the British were running over the countryside burning buildings and cities, the U.S. was 1) at risk and 2) had to resist.

    We are talking here, I would say, about the minimum every day ethical duty not to protest something you are insufficiently informed of (diligence, fairness), and the patriot’s duty to be informed about The National Anthem (competence, citizenship). Why does this trouble you?

  8. Lobby? Me? I’m content to let the “violent” lines of each candidate speak — those that address the treatment to be accorded to the enemies of the nation — and let the reader judge which approach he or she likes best.

    SSB: “His blood has washed out his foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

    BHOTR: “I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel: ‘As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal.’ Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, since God is marching on.’

    ATB: “Oh beautiful, for heroes proved in liberating strife; who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.”

    (P.S. Julia Ward Howe’s hard-to-understand “final gospel” means “to the extent you crush those who hate me, I will offer you grace.”

  9. The only problem with using the War of 1812 as a patriotic exemplar is that it was a war which we started and in which we began the fine policy of burning cities (York, which is now Toronto and later Niagara on the Lake)

    • That’s just not a “problem” unless one is making an active effort to undermine what the Anthem is about. The song is not a celeebration of the War of 1812; indeed, when the song was written, the U.S. thought it was losing. The lyrics are about the moment when a citizen learns that the flag is still flying, that the dream endures, that the enemy has not prevailed. Once the nation is under attack, the diplomatic arguments regarding why the war started are irrelevant. The nation still has to survive. In the War of 1812, it almost didn’t.
      There is no “problem”.

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