My conservative friends have cheered President Trump’s recent rhetoric toward NFL players who kneel or sit during their game’s national anthem. It’s a confusing position since many of these same people are outspoken against the creeping endangerment of free speech and religious liberty.
Now, I am no fan of Colin Kaepernick or the anthem protests he began last year. I don’t believe that Kaepernick is being blacklisted by the league as a symbolic martyr for social justice. But to refer to players who opt to kneel as a crass expletive and call on the NFL to fire them is an un-American move on the president’s part.
Conservative evangelicals, of all people, should realize that Trump’s response belittles our country’s free speech rights and sets a dangerous precedent for expression in the public square.
His comments represent an ignorant and inappropriate use of the executive office to bully private citizens over their political beliefs. How we feel about the protests, players, or current events surrounding them is largely irrelevant to their right to expression and the value of peaceful demonstration.
These protests by NFL players were not anti-American, but deeply American. The rhetoric from the most powerful man in the United States, whose office affords enormous potential for unifying our country, was the opposite when he spoke with such hostility against their demonstration.
Trump’s words were anti-American in the worst way. To say that players who choose to sit out the anthem are “disrespecting” the history of the United States or its military falsely conflates the country with its anthem. It turns peaceful citizens exercising their God-given rights into “enemies” and “traitors.”
As a conservative, who happens to hold traditional religious views about sexuality and marriage that some label dangerous, I am horrified at these accusations. Making disagreement the basis of hostility sets us up for the disintegration of our democracy, especially when it comes from the highest office in the land. I’m equally horrified at the conservatives who don’t see this.
The loss of free speech for beliefs deemed controversial or unpopular is not a hypothetical concern for conservative evangelicals. Over the past couple years, conservatives have been disproportionately scrutinized in federal confirmation hearings, on college campuses and by major companies like Google and Facebook. Our freedom of conscience is regularly being denigrated and assaulted by people who disagree.
We should be all the quicker to defend others who face a similar fate.
I still recite the Pledge of Allegiance and put my hand on my heart during the “Star Spangled Banner.” But as a white man, my experience has been significantly different from that of many black men in America. I’ve never been called a racial epithet, turned down for a mortgage, or handcuffed and slammed to the ground because I was mistaken for a wanted criminal. I know that many of the NFL players kneeling, sitting, or raising a fist during the anthem have a radically different story when it comes to life in America.
I don’t necessarily think that protesting the anthem is the best way to tell these stories and advocate for justice. America has always been greater than its reality, and the anthem and the pledge are symbols that point to this ideal. If I were in the NFL, I would stand during the anthem to show that I value the principles it represents, even if they are ones I believe our country has not perfectly achieved.
Conservatives now have an urgent interest in defending free speech and promoting mutual dialogue and good faith in the public square. Tragically, anger over players’ stances during the national anthem has blinded many to this reality. Our blindness may bear some rotten fruit for traditionalists in the years to come.
Part of the reason I love football is how it can bring people together. Political beliefs, race and religion cannot keep fans from cheering on their team and rejoicing together. At NFL games, strangers turn to one another and give hugs and high-fives over a touchdown. That’s not just a beautiful picture of unity amid diversity. It’s a tiny picture of the best of America.
Athletes who kneel don’t harm that. Presidents who bully do.
Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books in Wheaton, Ill., and blogs at Mere Orthodoxy.