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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.

Never mind that she was essentially abandoning one set of rote instructions for another. At the time, it smacked me in the head like a cartoon anvil from above. Wow, I thought. This thing I’d done for years without thinking could be thought about. I could even say no.

It’s my earliest memory of witnessing a principled dissent.

I thought of Ann/Monica 40 years later when Goshen College, a small Mennonite school in Indiana, 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 to this day.

But I for one had the same response I had 40 years before: Wow.

I thought of her again six years ago when Colin Kaepernick drove a hard-won career off a cliff by kneeling quietly during the anthem in peaceful protest against police brutality, and again last year when Mark Cuban stopped playing the anthem before Dallas Mavericks home games to support the player-led social justice movement and “respect those whose believed the anthem did not represent them.”

In April 2021, Texas responded with the matchless dumb force of offended nationalism. A new law dubbed the “Star-Spangled Banner Protection Act” requires that any professional sports team receiving Texas state funding play the anthem.

Money talked, the NBA announced that “all teams will play the national anthem,” and the Mavericks complied.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the anthem itself—musical, textual, and historical. It’s a waltz. The range is too wide. It’s based on a bawdy English drinking song. And it’s militaristic, which is part of 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 jarring, values-wise. They chose instead to celebrate our spacious skies and amber waves by substituting “America the Beautiful,” a better song in almost every way.

A LITTLE HISTORY

“The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t adopted as the US national anthem until 1931. But it was already a known patriotic song, and in Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, during the darkest period of WWI, the US Navy band struck up with the SSB during the seventh-inning stretch. The crowd response stapled the strange ritual into sports history.

Goshen didn’t even play the anthem at games until 2010. It was in 2011 that they opted out again, touching off the firestorm. As we’ve learned with ‘In God We Trust’ on the money and ‘under God’ in the pledge, never give an inch to the God and country crowd.

It’s gratifying to see someone reflecting on their actions—especially 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 or social justice to step on nationalistic toes is something I can get behind.

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.