Goshen College Gets (Civil) Religion

by Steven P. Miller

Mennonites usually appear in the headlines when someone has confused them with their close (but very different and more interesting) relatives, the Amish. This week, though, The New York Times, MSNBC, and other media outlets chose to cover a novel event in my part of Mennoworld: the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at my alma mater and temporary place of employment, Goshen (Ind.) College. This was a first for the 116-year-old institution, affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA, a historic peace church.

My alma mater is extremely sensitive to criticism, which usually comes from groups to the theological right of this traditional bastion of Mennonite liberalism (Put it this way: I’ve heard stories of evangelists declaring that the sewers of Goshen are “clogged with fetuses”). Still, Mennonites are fond of having conversations (as opposed to conflicts), and in that spirit I will venture forth with a few observations/teachable asides about L’Affaire Anthem.

The criticism of the new anthem policy within Goshen circles has some interesting parallels to how the “young evangelicals” of the early 1970s interpreted Robert Bellah’s famous “civil religion” thesis. That is, they focused almost exclusively on the priestly, rather than the prophetic, side of American civil religion. Such an approach might work as theology, but it does not suffice as history. In the classroom this semester, I have tried to get my students thinking about the multiple meaning of American-ness (and claims to American-ness) by using a modified form of Gary Gerstle’s civic vs. racial nationalism rubric, which I’ve long thought also is relevant to the study of American religion.

I’m intrigued to hear criticism of the anthem policy coming from other than Mennonite circles. It’s as if Goshen had some sort of obligation to be the foil for Christendom. Where did these high expectations come from? My best guess is the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a vocal fan of Mennos who hitched his highly influential post-liberal vision to the spirit of the very Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

As the above thoughts might suggest, I’m not terribly bothered by the new policy—a fact that puts me in the minority among my alumni friends. In deciding to play the anthem before most sporting events, the college unquestionably is abandoning a source of Mennonite distinctiveness. On the other hand, no one who attends a Goshen baseball game—and hears an announcement of the school’s core values (three of which are “Global Citizenship, Servant Leadership and Compassionate Peacemaking”), followed by a musical version the anthem, followed in turn by the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi—will mistake the place for Patrick Henry College. Besides, our nickname is not “Crusaders,” not “Flames”; it’s “Maple Leafs.”


Matt Sutton said…
Steven--great and fascinating post. I trust that you were one of the shirt-less guys with "U.S.A." painted across your chest? Or was your Billy Graham tattoo in the way?
Paul Harvey said…
Hey Steven, now that you've brought it up in this great post, hope you'll follow up later with your thoughts on applying the Gerstle civic vs. racial nationalism formula to religious history, would love to hear further thoughts on that.
Will do, Paul. And Matt, if I did have a tattoo, it would be of Menno Simons, of course.
Wayne Ratzlaff said…
Stephen, One news article I came across stated that enrollment at Goshen has steadily slipped during the past 3 decades. To what degree is this decision to play the National Anthem precipitated by declining enrollment and alumni endowments?

The reason I ask is that some of my relatives in Kansas, who are alumni of the Bethel College (another bastion of Mennonite liberalism), refuse to financially support that institution because of the pervasiveness of pacifism there.

Adding to that, I know one of the Mennonite churches in my hometown, which is tottering on insolvency due to declining membership, has experienced significant tension over the issue of placing the American flag in a corner of the sanctuary.

Finally, I am wondering if the GC-MB divide was an issue in this issue. I know some of my more conservaitve Mennonite relatives consider colleges like Goshen or Bethel to be the start of a slippery slide to hell and refuse to allow their children to go there. Is the National Anthem issue symbolic of a larger initiative to bridge the divide with Mennonites of a less liberal persuasion?
Wayne--Good questions. Supporters of the policy see it as (in part) a response to a campus body that has become increasingly diverse; whereas some critics wonder about the enrollment issue (which is not nearly as severe as Bethel's). But this year, at least, the new policy may very well cost Goshen some alumni financial support. In Mennonite Church USA circles (unlike what I know of the MBs), many conservative folks(b/c of what they would see as their traditional Mennonite theology) would oppose playing the anthem.

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