Some Mennonite colleges play the national anthem before sporting events. Some don’t. Some say it’s a chance to reflect on liberty. Some say it’s a chance to honor those in the military who fight for that liberty. Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., says it is more than a chance. For the roughly 80 percent of students who are athletes, it is a requirement. A policy enacted in early October says if you don’t stand, you don’t play.
For some athletes in the U.S., kneeling rather than standing is a statement of protest against racial injustice in America. Tabor athletes, many of whom are not white, should have the freedom to do this. If anything, forced “respect” cheapens what the flag symbolizes.
“Our coaches and myself feel that’s not the time for protest, right when a game will start when we want to have a unified focus on the game,” said athletic director Rusty Allen. “We just felt like it can be misinterpreted so easily.”
The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ Confession of Faith does not address the national anthem, but Article 12 says “Christians are called to resist the idolatrous temptation to give to the state the devotion that is owed to God.”
Tabor and the Mennonite Brethren are part of an Anabaptist tradition wary of nationalism and militarism. While it is up for debate whether standing for the anthem is an act of excessive allegiance to the state, that decision should be an individual’s, not an administrator’s.
Anabaptist institutions should be particularly sensitive to the rights of conscience. It is especially ironic that Tabor would require its student athletes, the vast majority of whom are not Mennonite, to participate in any act that could be construed as forced loyalty to a banner other than God’s. The MB Confession applies here: The playing of the anthem is a powerful symbolic moment when a Christian might feel called to resist idolatrous devotion, or to protest racial injustice, by kneeling respectfully.
In the past, Tabor has defended countercultural actions based on conscience. In a Dec. 3, 2014, request for an exemption to a federal ban on certain kinds of discrimination, President Jules Glanzer wrote that Tabor cannot in good conscience “support or encourage an individual to live in conflict with biblical principles in any area.”
The mission of Tabor isn’t to fall in line with society but to prepare “people for a life of learning, work and service for Christ and His kingdom.” That kingdom should never be confused with any one country.
Athletic director Rusty Allen says no student is being asked to give allegiance to the nation or flag. He is entitled to his belief about how to define allegiance. It’s unfortunate that when the anthem plays, student athletes lose the freedom to act on their definitions and beliefs.