Here’s my take on the rash of ostensibly conscience-stricken pro athletes protesting racism by disrespecting the national anthem, and the backlash of indignation from patriotic Americans reacting to overheated media coverage of the stunt.
Start with a great quip by commentator Cal Thomas at Centennial Institute a couple of years ago: “I always start my day by reading the Bible and the New York Times. That way I know what both sides are up to.”
My own custom is to spend a little time in the Scriptures before breakfast every morning, then skim the Denver Post over breakfast. Donna usually has Fox News on in the kitchen too.
I find this takes Thomas’s funny-but-serious contrast to the next level — in that the TV makes a pushy emotional claim on my attention that the newspaper can’t match, while both of them tug at me with a bogus sense of urgency that God’s Word (if I let it) calmly counteracts.
It becomes a question of who I’m going to allow to set my agenda for thought and concern on any given day. If I cede that control to some pampered, misguided NFL player, sanctimoniously viewing our country through the wrong end of the telescope, my resulting sense of powerless annoyance is no one’s fault but my own.
Fume if you want to, but (in Yogi Berra’s immortal words) include me out.
In terms of public policy and social reality, the Black Lives Matter movement from which the anthem protesters take their inspiration is based on a lie. All kinds of data, including definitive research by a black economist at Harvard, Roland Fryer, show that police use deadly force against African-Americans less — not more — than proportional statistics would predict.
And looking at things in a broader context, it’s fair to ask 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his imitators what magic solution they expect the body politic to bring forth in response to their righteous posturing against “oppression,” here in a country that already affords people of all races more opportunity to better themselves materially and live together amicably than any other nation on earth. In suggesting the overwrought young millionaire try his luck elsewhere, Donald Trump had a point.
But let’s take the analysis deeper still. As a Christian, I am under solemn obligation to avoid idolatry, homage to false gods. The whole Kaepernick caper only gets leverage by catching millions of us in our own unthinking idolatry — three kinds, in fact.
Face it, Americans too often accord godlike status to celebrities in general and to the rituals and personalities of big-time football in particular.
That’s two. Number three is our misplaced sense of sanctity surrounding the flag and other symbols of US nationhood.
Take those volatile ingredients, add the white-hot glare of media sensationalism, and you have a pointless national controversy with staying power, an obsessive distraction from lots of things far more deserving of our time and energy. Pagans and atheists may not know any better, but Christians ought to.
Ask any evangelical with half a brain if America is in the Bible, and they will correctly say of course not. But watch some of them in action, listen to how they talk about politics and the news, notice their tendency to blur (or even equate) piety and patriotism, and you’ll see symptoms of an implicit blasphemous assumption that God is a Reagan Republican. What else would he be, after all?
I’m here to plead guilty of having flirted with that blasphemous assumption myself from time to time in a long, zealous political career — and to thank the showboating Mr. Kaepernick for having dramatized so unmistakably (if quite unintentionally) the idolatrous temptation besetting all of us who love this land.
He’ll not have the satisfaction of setting my agenda to rage against his insult to Old Glory and his ingratitude to the USA. But he has helped, obliquely as it were, set my agenda more thoughtfully to take fewer cues from Uncle Sam and more from our Father in Heaven and his Son our Lord.
The biblical theology of our relationship with civil government and earthly regimes is a subject for another day. But consider, just briefly, the serene equanimity with which New Testament figures from Jesus and John the Baptist to Peter and Paul and their fellow apostles, all regarded the trappings of political power and the potentates both despotic and benign who happened to cross their path. They knew, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, that we’re all pilgrims and resident aliens here, dwellers of no enduring city or unshakable kingdom.
As Christ-followers in 21st century America, may we never lose sight of the same. Kaepernick can take a knee if he so chooses. It harms no one. I seem to remember that when Tebow took a knee just a few years ago, evangelicals whooped with joy. Mightn't that have been a tiny bit idolatrous in its own way?