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Her name was Ann, that much I remember for sure. Or Monica. We were both in fourth grade when she informed our teacher that she would not be saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

She explained in a quiet, confident voice that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as such was not to pledge an oath to anyone or anything but God.

Though I suppose she was essentially abandoning one set of rote instructions for another, at the time it smacked me in the head like a whistling cartoon anvil falling from a cliff. Wow, I thought. This thing I had done for years without thinking could be thought about and responded to. It’s my earliest memory of witnessing a principled dissent.

I thought of Ann/Monica when the story broke earlier this year about Goshen College, a small Mennonite school in Indiana that made the decision to stop playing the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events. There were the usual cries of outrage from the usual bawling gobs, the usual torrents of hate mail that I understand are continuing still. But I for one had the same response I had forty years ago: Wow.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike our national anthem — musical, textual, and historical. For starters, it’s a waltz. Nobody else has a national anthem that’s a waltz. Okay, “God Save the Queen,” but that’s about it. It’s also unsingable, with a too-wide range of an octave and a fifth. That’s why ballpark yahoos always yodel up into falsetto on “land of the FREE” — to make it look like they meant to sound bad on that high F.

It’s also militaristic, which is the problem Goshen College had with it. Peace and nonviolence are key components of the Mennonite worldview, and the Goshen College motto (“Healing the World, Peace by Peace”) made crowing about rockets and bombs a bit of a problem. They chose instead to celebrate our spacious skies and amber waves by substituting America the Beautiful, a better song in almost every way.

(I don’t actually mind the military setting as much as I once did. The song celebrates surviving an assault, not slaughtering the foe — unlike the Marseillaise of France, which (though musically unbeatable) is easily the most bloodthirsty anthem on Earth. You have to love the “Children’s Verse,” in which the children of France sing of their yearning to avenge their ancestors in battle and join them in their coffins.)

Then there are historical problems. The tune is of English origin. You may recall that the War of 1812 was not against the hated Costa Ricans or the dreaded Laplanders, but the English. So when we dug deep into our repertoire for a tune that matched the metrical structure of the poem Francis Scott Key had written commemorating our victory over the English, we chose “To Anacreon in Heaven” -– an English drinking song.

Yes, the tune of our hallowed national anthem was originally a bawdy drinking song, written in London in the 1770s by members of the Anacreontic Society, an upper class men’s club.

Here’s the first verse of the original lyrics. You know the tune:


To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian

Voice, fiddle and flute, No longer be mute,
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire ye to boot…
And, besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

So Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BCE, approves the use of his name and instructs the “sons of harmony” to “entwine the myrtle of Venus” (goddess of love) “with Bacchus’s vine” (god of wine). He orders them, in short, to have drunken sex.

In subsequent verses, Zeus is made furious by the news of the proposed entwining, convinced that the goddesses will abandon Olympus in order to have sex with drunken mortals. But the king of the gods is laid low with diarrhea and, fleeing Olympus with his “nine fusty maids,” is thereby rendered unable to countermand the order.

I couldn’t make this stuff up on my best day.

The lyrics that replaced these are actually pretty well crafted. (Say those first two full sentences aloud — some elegant sentence construction going on there.) But most people aren’t aware that the fourth stanza includes the first direct suggestion that “In God We Trust” (actually “In God is our trust”) should be our national motto. A hundred forty-two years later, he got his wish.

Finally, we did without a national anthem for more than 150 years. Though Key’s poem was around from 1814 and even got the tune stuck to it shortly thereafter (as a spritely dance number), it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 1931. That’s right — this ancient, venerable, untouchable tradition was born the same year as my dad. Prior to that it was just another national song, like “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

These are relatively trivial things, of course, compared to Goshen’s reasoning. It was just so gratifying for me to see someone reflecting on their actions — even the most rote and expected of those actions — then thinking about whether those actions line up with their stated principles and making adjustments as needed.

Not all principles are admirable, but caring enough about peace and nonviolence to step on nationalistic toes is something I can get behind. Kudos to Goshen.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.