The Predictable Christian Backlash Against Taking A Knee

The nature of protests against the government are disrespectful by intent, so the issue of the protest, not its nature, is what matters.
Screen capture from ABC News story on the new song
Screen capture from ABC News story on the new song

A few weeks ago, a new song was added to what’s called the CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) database, a licensed music repository for music ministries including churches. Worship leaders from around the world gather material from the database for their services, so it’s a pretty big deal to have your music included. It’s the doorway to Christian music fame and fortune, whatever that means. The new song added recently was “Make America Great Again.” That’s right. The campaign slogan of one Donald J. Trump is now a worship tune for Christian churches everywhere.

Make America great again

Make America great again

Lift the torch of freedom all across the land

Step into the future joining hand in hand

And make America great again

Yes make America great again.

The song was included as a part of press coverage that weekend, although the meaning escaped most. Certain Christian bloggers and columnists, however, saw the significance. One of them was Jonathan Aigner of the Patheos blog, Ponder Anew.

It’s saccharine and uninteresting but it seems innocent enough. Indeed, if it were just another little ditty to whistle on Independence Day, it would be fairly innocuous. The problem is that the sentiment behind it has been adopted by a significant portion of the evangelical church. It’s not only their candidate’s campaign slogan, it’s now a part of their gospel. It’s their mantra, their creed, their prayer, and they shout it out with nationalistic fervor. Pledging allegiance to God and to America in the same breath, melding together the kingdom of God and self, they pray a blasphemous prayer to a red, white, and blue Jesus. The mere existence of a song like “Make America Great Again” in a database of so-called “worship” songs highlights the degree to which American Christianity has sold its soul to a gospel of power and self-interest.

This event, perhaps more than any other since the campaign and election of Donald Trump, signifies the depth to which the cloak of American nationalism has been draped over the lives and pronouncements of Evangelical Christianity, reaching its original fever pitch by the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. This level of intense nationalist passion is also behind the latest controversy in the news: the protest begun by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick against police killing black people with seeming impunity by taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before each game. Kaepernick is unemployed now, and many believe it’s due to his protest and not his lack of skill at the quarterback position. Other black athletes began taking up the cause, which prompted President Trump ― at a campaign rally in Alabama last Friday for Senate candidate Luther Strange ― to take a shot at the practice. Here’s the way The Washington Post reported it:

So while championing Strange’s “American values,” Trump pivoted to a long-held symbol of Americana: the subject of football. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s FIRED!’” Trump said.

The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reported:

As the crowd burst into cheers, the president threw his hands into the air and shook his head. For the fourth time that night, the crowd began to chant: “USA! USA! USA!” “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage,” Trump said. “That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Okay? Everything that we stand for. And I know we have freedoms, and we have freedom of choice and many, many different freedoms, but you know what? It’s still totally disrespectful.”

As expected ― and in a remarkable show of solidarity ― NFL teams and members of teams responded Sunday by “taking knees” across the league. Even in some cases where team members disagreed, there was still the holding of hands to show unity in the cause against racism, which was the original intent of Kaepernick’s protest. The president dismissed the gestures by arguing that his statements were about disrespect and not the intent of the protest, and the whole mess has yet again furthered the split in the country. How is it possible that people can view the same event and come away with two diametrically-opposed meanings? This is the core question in our culture today, because we only seem capable of viewing things like this in terms of black/white, either/or, and all or nothing. What if the demonstration is both disrespectful and questioning why case after case of police killing a black person results in acquittals?

Is the taking of a knee during the National Anthem disrespectful? Well, yes, but if it wasn’t disrespectful, it wouldn’t get anybody’s attention. So yes, let’s agree it’s disrespectful. But it can’t and doesn’t end there, for the nature of protests against the government are disrespectful by intent, so the issue of the protest, not its nature, is what matters, and dismissing it is just as disrespectful ― perhaps even more so ― than the flag-burning, sit-in, occupation, or any other protest protected by our constitution. It’s ironic, to say the least, that those who protest the protest by claiming nationalist disrespect are actually howling at the very First Amendment that protects everybody in the argument. This is especially the case with those who equate taking a knee with spitting in the faces of soldiers, sailors, and marines who died protecting the flag and the freedom for which it stands ― the very freedom that the athletes are using to call attention to a matter that demands more than just a local investigation.

By seeing only disrespect in this form of protest, everyone ― including the president ― is diminishing the intent of the protest and stating with a clear voice that they really don’t give a crap about what’s taking place in our streets. Moreover they are saying to the protestors that their complaint is worthless and that they approve of the actions of law enforcement in the taking of innocent - yes, innocent ― lives. There is no other logical way to interpret this cry of disrespect. What else do we expect from those who would put the nostalgic illusion of more peaceful times ― to them ― ahead of the commandment to love one another. Just make America great again, and everything will be fine.

Jesus ― red, white, blue or otherwise ― died for all of humanity, not just a select, mostly white, few. To whatever extent America ever existed as a beacon of light on a hill, that glow is getting dimmer and dimmer with each day that passes, and no amount of wishful thinking is ever going to bring its perceived brightness back. It won’t burn brighter through a nationalistic worship song or certainly not through the disrespect of life demonstrated each time an innocent man or woman ― who happens to be black ― is murdered in the front seat of their car, or alongside, or otherwise ― at the hand of trigger-happy police who are later acquitted regardless of the facts.

Like the mighty eagle that is rising on the wind

Soaring t’ward our destiny

Hearts and voices blend

With a mighty melody oh let the song begin

And make America great again

Make America great again

If they ever sing this at my church, I’m taking a knee.