Friday, July 1, 2011

Independence, Freedom and the National Anthem

Mark Schloneger, pastor of the Springdale Mennonite Church near Waynesboro, created an unexpected stir with his essay,  "Why I Don’t Sing 'The Star Spangled Banner'" the lead piece on CNN’s website Sunday, June 26.

The essay, which closed with, “I love my country, but I sing my loyalty and pledge my allegiance to Jesus alone,” generated over 4000 on-line responses, many of which labeled him an ungrateful traitor for his problems over some of the words of the anthem, suggesting he and others like him should promptly emigrate elsewhere.

One response to his statement about 16th century Catholics and Protestants torturing and executing Anabaptists was, "I'm disappointed in the Catholics and Protestants. Looks like they missed a few."

There were many others, though, who either expressed support for Schloneger’s convictions or at least celebrated his right to state them, stressing that this was what America was all about.

In scanning the posts I learned a lot about just how hostile many Americans are toward religious minorities, but also about the actual history of our nation’s anthem.

One respondent, “Bruce,” explained:

Francis Scott Key wrote a poem called "Defence of Fort McHenry" in 1814 based on a battle he witnessed in the War of 1812. He didn't experience this war as a soldier, by the way, he was there as a lawyer negotiating the release of some prisoners.... It was not our national anthem officially until 1931, signed into law by President Hoover.

While the first rendition of the anthem at a sporting event was during the 7th inning stretch of the 1918 World Series, it was not until WWII that the tradition of singing it at the beginning of each game came into being. Coincident to this was the evolution of the Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892... It wasn't officially our national pledge until 1942 (and didn't include the words, "under God," until Eisenhower signed a a new law into place in 1954). Placing your hand over your heart was a convention that happened in late 1942 (about 6 months after adoption), replacing what is now called the "Bellamy salute."

The national anthem, at least the notion that we should open up all of our sporting events with it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It blossomed with the pledge at about the same time, during the McCarthy era and the red scare times, when our country was at a low point when it comes to political freedom.

What was overlooked in this discussion is that members of the sixteenth century Anabaptist  “free church” movement (of which Mennonites are a part) suffered and died by the thousands for claiming the right of everyone to belong (or not) to the church of their choosing, a freedom we all take for granted today. The official state churches of that time, far from advocating freedom of religion, supported the persecution, killing or banishment of those who refused to have their children baptized and registered in whatever was the official brand of Christendom of the region of their birth (e.g., all children born in Lutheran jurisdictions were baptized Lutheran, etc.).

Thankfully, all of this has changed, but the fact remains that the religious freedom guaranteed in the first amendment owes its origin not so much to the blood of history's soldiers as to that of it's martyrs. In supporting freedom of expression and freedom of religion we are now all Mennonites. In questioning whether we can give full allegiance to both Caesar and Jesus, we cast our lot with the martyrs of the first century, who were persecuted not because they worshiped another deity (of which there were many) but because they pledged "Jesus is Lord" rather than the mandated "Caesar is Lord."

Since I truly do appreciate all that is good about America, but am not so fond of "bombs bursting in air," I would love to see “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” become the nation’s theme song.

“Let freedom ring!”
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