Thursday, March 25, 2010

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.”


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