Two former NFL quarterbacks have become known for kneeling. Tim Tebow would kneel whenever he made a touchdown, an act of prayer. Colin Kaepernick would kneel during the National Anthem, an act of protest. Both players are devoutly religious. But they represent two strains of contemporary Christianity: the personal piety of the evangelicals and the social justice piety of mainline Protestantism.
Such is the observation of Michael Frost–a professor at Morling College, a Baptist institution in Sydney, Australia–in a blog post that was published in the Washington Post: Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: Christianity on its knees – The Washington Post.
He points out that Tebow was a missionary kid, the home-schooled child of missionaries to the Philippines. Tebow is pro-life and has made a stand for sexual abstinence until marriage. Conservative Christians tend to appreciate him, though he is often the target of mockery.
Kaepernick was born to a 19-year-old single mother who gave him up for adoption. He was baptized in a Methodist church, but confirmed as a Lutheran, though in college he attended a Baptist church. While Tebow wore John 3:16 eye-black, Kaepernick has Bible verse tattoos. Like Tebow, Kaepernick has been vocal about his Christian faith. Prof. Frost quotes him:
“My faith is the basis from where my game comes from. I’ve been very blessed to have the talent to play the game that I do and be successful at it. I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field. I think if you go out and try to do that, no matter what you do on the field, you can be happy about what you did.”
Kaepernick expresses this faith through his charitable foundation, which has given money to the hungry in Somalia, to buy suits for released prisoners, to support Meals on Wheels, and other philanthropic causes. And late in his career he began taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police killings of black men, adopting the cause of “Black Lives Matter.” For this, he has been lauded by progressives and emulated by other players, while becoming the “most disliked” player in the NFL.
I was interested in Kaepernick’s Lutheran connection. I looked into it a little more and found this article on his adoption to a Lutheran couple in Milwaukee. Kaepernick, to his credit, has said that he is not interested in establishing a relationship with his birth mother, who is white, or trying to find his father, who is black, out of respect for the family that raised him. I haven’t found any information about the congregation that he grew up in and that confirmed him. Milwaukee is full of Lutherans of every kind, and it would be helpful to know if he was confirmed in a congregation of the conservative Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, or the Evangelical Synod, in which case he would be well-grounded in orthodox Christianity. Or if had been confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), where he might have been catechized in the social Law and the social Gospel.
The latter would be more supportive of Prof. Frost’s thesis. But his article misses some other complications. There is no information about Kaepernick’s church affiliation now, but Prof. Frost says that he attended a Baptist church in college, which would go against the “mainline liberal Protestant” narrative. It may be that Tebow and Kaepernick are both Baptists. (He has denied rumors that he has become a Muslim.)
More likely, in my opinion, is that the biracial Kaepernick began emphasizing his Black identity. The Black church, including Black Baptists, tend to be both evangelical and politically progressive.
As Terry Mattingly has shown, prompting a correction in the original article, Tebow also has a philanthropic foundation which supports relief work overseas, prison ministry, and other charitable causes.
And while Kaepernick’s birth story earns him sympathy, so should Tebow’s. Tebow, observes Mattingly, “was born after a crisis pregnancy of a different kind, with doctors telling his mother than she should have an abortion rather than risk her own life to give birth to a potentially damaged, sick, endangered baby.” No wonder he is pro-life. It’s a strange blind spot for progressives that they do not see how killing the unborn is a social justice issue. Kaepernick too might have been aborted, if his mother had been a certain kind of progressive.
Prof. Frost concludes his essay by suggesting that evangelicals would do well to develop the social conscience of the mainliners, and that the mainliners would do well to cultivate the piety of the evangelicals: “The bifurcation of contemporary Christianity into two distinct branches is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.”
But it may be that this is already happening. Progressives do not have a monopoly on good works or social concerns or social justice. Tebow’s sexual abstinence, compassion for the needy, and pro-life activism should count in those categories.
HT: Terry Mattingly
Photo of Tim Tebow by Ed Clemente Photography (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons