When civil religion meets football, you get … Colin Kaepernick. Just in case the rock you live under doesn’t have Wi-Fi, Kaepernick is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who has drawn widespread attention for his decision to kneel in protest during the national anthem.
“When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country, I’ll stand,” he announced.
The response from critics has been entirely predictable. Sarah Palin called him an “ungrateful punk.” Boomer Esiason labeled the quarterback “a complete and utter distraction and a disgrace.” And Donald Trump—the same Donald Trump who ironically enough doesn’t seem to think America is all that great right now—advised that Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”
But for every detractor, there is an ally. More and more professional football players are joining in the protest, as are collegiate athletes and high schoolers. And prominent voices like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are calling Kaepernick’s actions “very admirable.”
Thus, the embodied protest of one athlete has rippled out into a debate over racial injustice, patriotism, and the appropriateness of certain types of protest. It’s a story that has gained traction precisely because of its setting. The football field is America’s “new cathedral,” a sacred place where thousands gather to celebrate their team and their collective identity. Chargers, Jets, Ravens, Steelers. These are not just mascots or team names, but rather deeply meaningful markers of local identity. “The Steelers are the heart and soul of Pittsburgh,” remarked one fan.
Add to this the fact that the protests are happening during a pregame ritual, which is supposed to unite “Us” as Americans. The Star Spangled Banner first played during the seventh inning of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. It was intended as a tribute to those fighting in the Great War, and it did indeed unite both opposing fans and players. “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field,” reported the New York Times. “It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”
While the French sociologist Émile Durkheim died one year earlier, it is entirely possible that his corpse twitched at this display of “collective effervescence.” In Durkheim’s formulation, religion has its very foundation in moments like these, when individuals feel “swept up into a world quite different from the one they see.” Here is where groups form a cohesive sense of “Us,” as well as a contrary “Them”—outsiders who do not share the same values and beliefs.
Scholars of civil religion have leaned heavily on Durkheim to think through how a pluralistic and diverse American nation can maintain a sense of unity. So it’s tempting to see Kaepernick and his ideological kin as a civil religious “Them,” profaning the sacred places of football and American patriotism. But as church historian Martin Marty observed, civil religion acts in both a priestly and prophetic mode. The former defends the status quo, while the latter resists it. We can think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who challenged white America to deliver on its promises of freedom and liberty to everyone. The protest of Kaepernick, then, is its own civil religious discourse. By kneeling, he and others are seeking to contrast and critique an America that is, with an America that ought to be. For this reason, many observers have been quick to identify parallels to the 1968 protest of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics. Like Kaepernick, their bodily gestures went off script, challenging a sacred convention. This led to outrage, as many echoed Brent Musberger who dubbed Smith and Carlos, “black-skinned storm troopers.”
For audiences in 2016 hearing this story, the critics are the ones who seem tragically out-of-place, holders of views contrary to how “We” define ourselves. But at the time, the prophetic stance of Smith and Carlos were equal parts shrill to some and inspiring to others. As the years passed, though, hostility faded while the image of their raised fists became iconic. Their decision to risk everything did the work of revealing an American blind spot on race and inequality.
Will Kaepernick become the new Smith and Carlos? Only time will tell. For now, at least, his protest has revealed the complexities of American civil religion—or, should I say, civil religions. Race, gender, class, ethnicity, region, and a host of other factors fuel an ongoing back-and-forth over the values that people believe transcend individual interests and contribute to the common good. The civil religious character of America is fundamentally unstable, with a center and periphery that changes alongside the topic, speaker, and time. But by viewing civil religion as an ongoing debate, we can better understand and contextualize those who stand, those who kneel, and those who can’t decide.
Featured image credit: “Colin Kaeperick During Super Bowl XLVII” by Austin Kirk. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.