anthems, pledges, and religious liberty: why I sit with kaepernick

anthems, pledges, and religious liberty: why I sit with kaepernick August 30, 2016

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Star athletes dwell in a rarefied world of privilege which is a bubble of its own, so it’s understandable that many will roll their eyes at the news that an NFL quarterback has opted not to stand for the National Anthem. In the grand scope of things, this is trivial; the buzz will die out; the wave of outrage pass and be forgotten.

But the wave of outrage is provoking conversations which we need to have. How significant is it that the National Anthem was written to commemorate a battle in the War of 1812, a war that could not be considered just, by Catholic standards? What should we make of the fact that our anthem celebrates, not a flag waving over land of peace and plenty, but a flag waving over a bloody conflict in which the Americans were the aggressors? And does it matter that the full text of the anthem celebrates, specifically, the bloody death of the Corps of Colonial Marines, a regiment of former slaves freed by the British in return for their allegiance in battle?  (see more here and here). Is it relevant that Francis Scott Key was a white supremacist, since everyone was, back then?



O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight

O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep

Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,

‘Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

How much does it matter when we adapt gravely and objectively immoral ideals, if it happens to be the majority opinion? If the majority of contemporary educated Americans happen to favor abortion, does this excuse our political leaders for favoring it? Do they get the same pass that our forefathers got, for defending something morally wrong just because it was the standard view of the day?

And does it matter what a text’s origins were, if we can give it a new meaning out of its original historical context? A formalist view of a text is that we can grasp its meaning, its form, its inherent paradoxes and balances and nuances, without reference to historical context or authorial intent, but the formalist view forgets that there’s a sort of uncertainty principle at work here: what we imagine to be the FORM OF THE TEXT, shining in splendour, unchanging in a sort of Platonic realm of PURE MEANING, is in fact our understanding of that text, complete with our own historically contextualized grasps of linguistic meaning, nuance, and rhetoric. For instance, a Christian writer in English might make a play on “Son of God” and “Sun in the sky” – which a) would be lost in translation, and b) lost to any English reader utterly ignorant of even the basics of Christianity.

Textual meaning is a tangle of historical conditions, and the historical conditions under which an author wrote are of primary importance. So we should not ignore the reality of unjust war, slavery, and white supremacy woven into the text of the “Star Spangle d Banner.”

Does it matter that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist (not a democratic socialist, either, but a nationalist one) with strong white supremacist leanings, as this Smithsonian article points out: 

[Francis] Bellamy, a former Baptist preacher, had irritated his Boston Brahmin flock with his socialist ideas. But as a writer and publicist at the Companion, he let ’em rip. In a series of speeches and editorials that were equal parts marketing, political theory and racism, he argued that Gilded Age capitalism, along with “every alien immigrant of inferior race,” eroded traditional values, and that pledging allegiance would ensure “that the distinctive principles of true Americanism will not perish as long as free, public education endures.”

As Catholics, we understand that part of engagement with a text involves studying its origins; we do not take scripture to mean whatever it seems to mean to us based on current understandings of English words translated from Greek or Hebrew. And this is not simply because we believe scripture to be divinely inspired: this is simply how we approach the text to understand it on a human level, and taking time to learn in this way is not some sort of intellectual elitism, but rather a gesture of respect to the work that went into the writing, arranging, preserving, and interpreting of texts throughout the long tradition ahead of us. I am not a conservative, but part of the conservative ethos that I admire is this respect for and humility in the face of an ongoing tradition – what Chesterton termed the “democracy of the dead.”

When we understand history, and historical contexts, we have to face much that is unpleasant, because human depravity is not some modern invention. We have to face the fact that history has often been driven by forces of human pride and violence, which afterwards rewrite themselves as nobility and courage. And, as Christians, with a sense of original sin and communal repentance, we need to reject this. That doesn’t mean not reading or learning about it, hiding away in artificial spaces where we won’t have to hear about anything unpleasant. But it might mean rejecting the narratives that are being projected onto reality, and when we reject these narratives, we may become unpopular.

Kaepernick’s gesture in refusing to stand for the national anthem may be a minor detail, but the racist rage that has been directed against him on social networking should make us realize that he has struck a nerve. Why should those who have come together to worship at the high holy altar of the religion of football be made to think hard thoughts about history and ethics? Why is it acceptable for NFL players to get away with rape, murder, domestic violence, and animal abuse, but not with activism?

Yes, these athletes are paid ridiculously. No, Kaepernick is not, himself, unprivileged: but, as an athlete, he is a beneficiary of extreme privilege that is reserved only for a few; black persons may occasionally participate in this privilege, yes, but that doesn’t erase or mitigate the injustices done systemically against the majority of other black persons; using his privilege to raise awareness of injustice, however, is apparently a sin against the two great and golden idols of America, Sports and Patriotism. And isn’t it interesting that it’s considered “whining” or “crybabying” to protest injustice, while rape and domestic violence are apparently acceptable within the rhetoric of what is or isn’t manly?

In fact, the realm of athletics has been an important space for the exposing of racial injustice, and a space for significant advancements in equal rights. My father, a college football player, told me how reviled and despised black athletes were, originally, but no one could deny their ability – so, they would say things like “well, they can run the ball, but they can’t be quarterbacks.” History has shown otherwise. So it is in fact fitting that a sports arena become a place of protest.

Aside from the issue of racial justice, and the problematic reality that our official mottoes of freedom and liberty are rhetorical covers over complex and often painful experiences for those who did not enjoy the benefits of prosperity or full protection of the law – we Christians should be very wary of any custom that demands that we give our allegiance to any man-made institution, such as a nation. Such a demand may even be construed as a violation of our religious liberty, when a nation promotes those things that we cannot in good conscience accept.

I am not saying this to revile those for whom the Anthem and the Pledge are meaningful ways of commemorating the lives of those they loved and lost. Yes, we do bring different meanings and interpretations to texts. But, once I have looked at the origin of those texts, I cannot, myself, support them, and I am reluctant to engage in ritual acts of near-worship that tie my fidelity to human institutions. And a nation that claims to respect personal and religious liberty needs to respect this choice. We need to maintain our religious liberty to follow Christ, not the dictates of a nation state which, as the utilitarian demands of the moment dictate, may make any number of infamies not only permissable, but obligatory. We need to be able to resist injustice, even if injustice is popular.

I pledge my allegiance to God, to my friends and family, to the thriving of my community, to the health and well-being of every living thing around me, the humans I meet, the birds in the sky, fish in the streams, the worms in the soil. I love the land beneath my feet, and the air I breathe. That’s the only kind of patriotism that makes sense to me.

image credit: by Jnn13 – public domain




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