Many Americans anticipate the beginning of the next football season from the second the Super Bowl concludes in February. When fall comes around they eagerly perform their Sunday night rituals – jerseys, snacks, drinks, and any other good luck charm or act to ensure their team’s victory. Scholars and journalists alike have commented on the similarities between religion, fandom, and sporting events.
It’s no wonder then that the inclusion of politics in such a sacred event feels like a transgression. Just recall the flurry of online chatter in response to the five St. Louis Rams players who walked on the field in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in 2014 or Beyoncé’s half-time show in support of #BlackLivesMatter and the LGBTQ community at this year’s Super Bowl.
Yet, Colin Kaepernick’s transgressive act during an August pre-season game for the 49ers does more than highlight the sacrality of football to the American public. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem reveals a tension within American civil religion, specifically the divide between two conceptions of patriotism that are both symbolized by the flag.
Patriotism in the United States often gets taken for granted as a common belief held by all citizens – our country is great; we love our country. National sentiment, however, isn’t so simple, and Kaepernick is only the latest figure to demonstrate this to the public.
Thanks to decades of propaganda, particularly in the 20th century, our collective memory of patriotism is a love and loyalty to country in spite of national policies or actions. It is easiest to trace the development of this understanding of patriotism during times of war. During World War I, the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts permitted dissenters to be punished. World War II brought the Office of War Information that creatively crafted national patriotism for mass consumption through Rosie the Riveter, victory gardens, and the co-opting of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings for a war bonds campaign. The Cold War further instilled support-of-the-government style patriotism with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which led to the investigation, possible prosecution, and assured destruction of reputation for even a tiny amount of dissent toward the government.
Yet, another form of patriotism exists. Scholar Heidi Hamilton refers to this style of patriotism as “love of principle” over “love of country.” Patriotic “love of principle” refers to valuing and respecting the ideological foundations of the nation, such as liberty, and striving to hold the government accountable to live up to those ideals.
This understanding of patriotism expresses itself in Kaepernicks’ reasoning for his protest. “You know, this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now,” Kaepernick said. “When I feel like the flag is representing what it’s supposed to represent, I’ll stand.”
Fellow athlete Megan Rapinoe, an American professional soccer player, understands Kaepernick’s patriotism. She knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick during the national anthem at a National Women’s Soccer League game last weekend.
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” Rapinoe told John D. Halloran at American Soccer Now. “It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”
According to Kaepernick’s and Rapinoe’s explanation, their dissent is the embodiment of the “love of principle” conception of patriotism. They are standing for the principles of the United States enshrined in the flag through the act of sitting and kneeling. Kaepernick’s and Rapinoe’s protest can then be read as a patriotic act against the government with love for the nation and what he believes the country should aspire to be.
Other activists and protestors in our nation’s history have been fueled by such “love of principle” patriotism. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protestors, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women’s suffrage activists, and numerous other groups (whether they have fallen on the “right side” of history or not) that have strived to transform the United States into a nation that stands for its pronounced ideals. In effect, they have embodied patriotism of dissent, which is no less patriotic than love of country or support of governmental policies.
But then, where does the flag fit in?
The U.S. flag often operates as the battleground for opposing patriotisms. Each side using the national icon to convey their version of patriotism. Take the Vietnam War for example. Those who supported the government’s actions proudly displayed the flag outside their homes, on their persons, and wherever possible. Some protesters, on the other hand, modified the flag to better represent the ideals they hoped the United States would represent. They made the peace flag.
Yet, to understand the flag as simply representing two poles of patriotism – love of country or love of principle – is overly reductive.
As Gary Laderman writes in American Civil Religion, the flag “conveys both collective memories of a sacred past still alive in the present and a living presence uniting and guiding society into the future.” Stitched into the stars and stripes are the national ideals we hold as the foundation of this country – liberty, free speech, equality, and justice. While a collective memory of these principles exists in the national history, it is a metanarrative meant to unify a citizenry and provide meaning to loss.
Other narratives and memories also exist about how the nation has dispensed with liberty, equality, and justice for various groups in the country, such as the treatment of African-Americans from slavery to unjustified police shootings. Each individual in this nation has a different experience of our country’s ideals based upon ethnicity, socio-economics, religion, education, immigration status, and any number of other factors. Therefore, we each imbue the flag with varying beliefs about how the United States has lived up to its values.
A Code Switch episode from July addresses the multivalent relationship between citizens and the flag from the perspective of people of color. In “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” NPR reporters Adrian Florido and Gene Demby examine how various individuals and communities read the symbolism of the flag. For instance, some Native Americans view the flag as representing the land they inhabit rather than the government or the nation. Or take Gabriel Torres, the first person we hear from in the episode. He chooses to wave the American flag in protest of Trump among a sea of other flags – Mexican, Columbian, etc. As an American, a Latino, and a veteran, Torres identifies with the U.S. flag because it is the flag he defended. Yet, we can probably guess what the flag symbolizes to him is not the same as what it symbolizes to the Trump supporters even if they use the same words – freedom and liberty.
What the dispute over Kaepernick’s actions reveals is that the nation’s relationship to the American flag and, thus, the national anthem is complicated. While such a conclusion may appear to be a cop-out, it’s important to remember that many in the U.S. understand patriotism and respect for the flag to have only one definition, as discussed at the beginning of this post. In reality, the flag is the material mediation of our individual patriotism. It is the sacred symbol of our distinct understandings of what the U.S. is and how it should be. And, as with other sacred objects, sometimes the flag needs to be transgressed to call attention to the failure of society to live up to its principles in pursuit of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”