What we have here with the Anthem shenanigans is what educators like to call a “teachable moment.” This is what it looks like when a country has a meltdown identity crisis. What America is dealing with (or, more accurately, not dealing with) is layer upon layer of seething cross-currents of magma-like confusions. My contribution to this teachable moment will consist of me throwing 17 fistfuls of wadded up tissue paper into the magma.
For those who want to be appropriately offended by what I am about to say, my theological observations are at the end, and my socio/political contributions are at the beginning. Start at the end which is most likely to help you get through to the other end. And if you manage to read the whole thing, you will discover that on this, as on so many issues, “it ain’t that simple.”
The first thing to remember, even if you forget everything else, is that in a remarkably prescient move, trying to catch a wave I didn’t even know was coming, a few months ago I released the satirical novel Flags Out Front. The novel addresses what it means to be both Christian and American in the middle of an overdone flag crisis, just like the one we have going down now. The set up for my story is this—Tom Collins is the president of a slowly fading Bible college down South (Choctaw Valley Bible College). One morning a drunk student is driving by the college, and on a lark he rearranges the flags out front, such that the Christian flag is now higher than the American flag. Collins comes in to work a few hours later, sees the flags that way and concludes something like “you know, that’s right,” and leaves them the way they are. As it happens, it is a slow news week all over the country, and the resultant brawl is almost entirely purple—gaudy and not understated at all.
Second, the fact that I wrote a prescient novel—uncanny almost—about all this should give me a significant amount of street cred as we address this issue, and so I look forward to a call requesting an interview from the Washington Post. The fact that it was a satiric novel should not make anyone think that there are no serious issues involved, for there most certainly are. For this reason, I am also looking forward to a call from some thoughtful cohort of the media, but since that cohort does not exist, I am not holding my breath.
Third, the American flag is the new Confederate flag. It is not as though we can isolate what is happening right now from what has been happening in the run-up to it. We are in the middle of a season of civic iconoclasm—flag removal, statue toppling, Founding Father-dissing—and we cannot pretend that we are not in the middle of such a season. Neither can we pretend that this NFL business is not a crucial part of it. These are times in which we claim to be acutely sensitive to every manner of micro-aggression, and we have formally accepted the notion that the teeniest displays of whiteness are an outrage. In such a climate, Confederate flags were low-hanging fruit for the iconoclasts, and so they had themselves a fun time.
Now in the fourth place, Russell Moore has painted himself into a corner. Fortunately for him, it is unlikely that he will discover the fact, and unfortunately for us, there will soon be painted footsteps all over the house. It turns that that the principles that made the Confederate flag such low-hanging fruit are principles that apply also to the new low-hanging fruit, to wit, Old Glory. Did Betsy Ross own slaves? Quick, somebody check. Francis Scott Key did, and his statue in Baltimore has already gotten the bloody red paint treatment. So if we have accepted the feelings of “our black brothers” as the final arbiter of what true gospel reconciliation is supposed to look like, then down comes the next flag. Only this time, gospel reconciliation might bring us into conflict with a power and/or principality that wasn’t defeated in a war a century and a half ago. The only way out is for Russell Moore, by word or by deed, to imply that these kneeling black brothers need to remember that we were not put into this world for the sake of our feelings alone. He can best accomplish this, by my counsel, by saying nothing whatever about this whole issue. If he speaks to it, I can guarantee that the verbal response will be a mass of contradictions, amounting to the position that other people’s flags need to repent, and that our beloved flag doesn’t. But this is a difficult position to defend, and I would recommend against it.
Fifth, by our “black brothers,” of course I mean those black NFL players who knelt, and not all the black players who didn’t. Everybody knows who the real blacks are—they are always the ones who are doing something that fits in with the demolition project being overseen by our critical theorists, our white overlords, the neo-commies. Other blacks, those not going along, are just honorary white people.
Coming in sixth, as a protest of what exactly? this whole thing is ill-conceived. We have had a spate of incidents and clashes between local police departments and black citizens. As with all such things, the realities of these conflicts have been a mixed bag. In some of the incidents, the black citizens got outrageous and murderous treatment. In others of them, the police got outrageous and murderous treatment. In some of them the behavior of the police was evil, and in others of them the behavior of the black citizens was evil. Now in the face of this, to make the flag and the Anthem the focal point of your protest means what? It means that you are in effect appealing the behavior of these municipalities all the way to the top, and are holding America responsible for a mismanaged police department in Wouk, Iowa. It means in short, that you want America to fix it, and are therefore agitating for a national police force, which ought to worry pretty much everybody. And from the perspective of the leftists, they are agitating for the whole thing to be placed in the capable hands of Jeff Sessions.
Seventh, on this issue, Donald Trump has jumped headfirst into a chocolate pie. I don’t know why people keep concluding he is an idiot when he is now in the position of defending apple pie, the flag, the Anthem, and Mom. He has successfully lumped the NFL, ESPN, the Left, spoiled millionaire athletes, the trendy progs, and the Democrats all together, and is in a position to say that all he is saying is that we all should show some respect. And all his enemies are yelling, “No, we will not show respect!” If you are puzzled over how Donald Trump became president, step out of the fray for a moment and look dispassionately at what is happening here. This episode is your Rosetta Stone.
Eighth, anybody who believes that the NFL is not vulnerable on this and related issues is someone who is not paying careful attention.
As my ninth observation, not only does the Bible allow for displays of this kind of honor, it requires us to participate in them as appropriate. “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17, ESV).
Tenth, we are not permitted to render idolatrous homage to anything (Dan. 3:18). We may never worship the emperor, or the empire, but we are required to honor both. The Bible doesn’t tell Christians to honor their private libertarian brain-thoughts, it says to honor the emperor. It also says that you should prefer going to the lions rather than to worship him (or his statue), but if you prefer your libertarian brain-thoughts to honoring the emperor, then you are not avoiding idolatry. You are bowing down to a pale reflection of self. You do not avoid idolatry by changing statues. “No, no, this is not idolatry. I am bowing down to a different image now.”
Eleventh, provided we are keeping ourselves from idolatry, certain civic liturgies are not only acceptable, but help to keep a society stable. That kind of stable society is conducive to evangelism (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Showing a decent, patriotic respect is not the same thing as godliness, but it is consistent with our larger kingdom purposes.
Twelfth, a friend tweeted about this whole situation: “Don’t miss the fact that football stadiums are the cathedrals of modern America & 2 false religions are currently involved in a worship war.” This testimony is true. At the same time, as Christians who went there just to see the game, we need to consider what we are supposed to do about it (not just think) when the Anthem starts to play.
Thirteenth, as Christians, we are not to take a knee, but rather stand respectfully.
Next, the Pledge of Allegiance, given its socialist origins, and its use of the word indivisible (an attribute of deity) is problematic. It is a reasonable wish for us to hope that our country might never be divided, but it is statist nonsense to say a country is incapable of division, which is what indivisible means. It would be better to say, in pious Christian fashion, long live the king. It is not so good to say may the king live forever. Kings don’t live forever, whatever we want, but they can live a long time, and if they are decent rulers we can live in a relatively stable place. The Scriptures require us to be advocates of that.
Fifteenth, that said, it is a free country, and athletes should be free to take a knee if they wish to do so. Of course, the owners of these football teams should also be able to take a knee when it comes to their athletes’ continued employment, and sports fans should be free to take a knee when it comes to viewing the sport in question. Everybody should be free to protest whatever they want, just not on someone else’s dime.
Next, while standing respectfully for the Anthem is lawful, and saying the Pledge is lawful (if you don’t say indivisible), it is kind of odd to open every sports event with it. But nobody said civic customs had to make perfect sense. Somebody did say that our customs must not be idolatrous.
Last, did I mention how vulnerable the NFL is?