Goshen College’s decision to ban “The Star Spangled Banner” from on-campus sporting events has generated all kinds of attention for the tiny Mennonite school in rural Indiana. The Sacramento Bee, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and NBC are among the media outlets that picked up the story of how Goshen, with its pacifist roots, decided to replace the National Anthem with “America the Beautiful” because the National Anthem, in the school’s view, promotes war and is thus “inconsistent” with the school’s values. A statement from the school explains that the board wanted an alternative that “resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.” “Mennonites,” adds one Goshen student, “appreciate America but also don’t want to have that violence.”
As a matter of fact, “The Star Spangled Banner” is not about violence or promoting war. It’s actually about freedom and peace. All you have to do is read Francis Scott Key’s poem to understand that our National Anthem’s true meaning is nothing for a Christian or any person of faith to be embarrassed by—and certainly nothing that deserves to be banned.
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
Key is asking if the flag is still flying—and more specifically, if his country is still free. After all, America, his homeland, was under attack. He saw Washington set ablaze. He saw “the bombs bursting in air.” And when he learns that “our flag” is “still there,” he is overjoyed, as the stanzas that follow reveal.
“Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, in full glory reflected now shines in the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Then, as Key—described by the National Park Service as “a deeply religious man” who was active in the Episcopal Church—grasps the full scope of what has transpired at Ft. McHenry, he turns the poem into a prayer of thanksgiving.
“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 is just. And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’”
Although we don’t usually sing these parts of the poem, that’s what our National Anthem is about. To be sure, Key penned it after a battle. And we can gather from context that, unlike many pacifists, he didn’t view war as the enemy. But neither was he glorifying war or violence. In fact, he was celebrating his freedom and his country’s independence from an enemy that brought “the havoc of war” to America’s shores.
In other words, it may not mean much to those who confuse moral relativism for wisdom, but freedom isn’t preserved by protest marches and teach-ins. It’s preserved by warriors. And as Francis Scott Key knew firsthand, America’s warriors are not enemies of peace.
Goshen College has every right to make this decision—especially if it’s a question of conscience and faith—though one wonders what prompted the decision now. After all, “The Star Spangled Banner” didn’t suddenly change.
Of course, those of us who disagree with Goshen’s decision have the right to point out how misguided it is.
Interestingly, just a couple hours down the road from Goshen College, there’s another Indiana school that takes a very different stance when it comes to Francis Scott Key’s song and other patriotic pregame rituals.
In 1966, amid the tumult surrounding the Vietnam War, a local newspaper publisher encouraged Purdue University’s marching band director “to get some patriotism into these kids,” as the Purdue University website unapologetically explains. The band director responded with these simple but stirring words, which would be “spoken over an arrangement of ‘America the Beautiful’” during the next home football game:
I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four: you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across a bright autumn sky. But remember too, that they are more than just words. They are a way of life. So whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!
The band director figured it was a one-time deal. But in response to strong popular demand, and after the tribute was presented before a national TV audience during the 1967 Rose Bowl, “I Am an American” became a permanent pregame football tradition at Purdue University.
More than four decades later, Purdue fans and visiting fans alike are invited to read the words of “I Am an America” during the pre-kickoff festivities of every home game—festivities which also include “The Star Spangled Banner.” When the crowd roars those last four words, it’s a reminder that what unites us is bigger than what divides us.