Protests have long been associated with sports. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the 1968 Summer Games, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and multiple sports teams recently went on strike to protest systemic racism. Responses to these protests have varied based on religious affiliation and race, and we will review some of those differences below.
Many White Evangelicals have been vocal about their disagreement with such protests. They labeled Kaepernick as unpatriotic and his kneeling protest as disrespectful to America, the military, and the flag. Smith and Carlos were subjected to similar hatred, even to the point of receiving death threats. Most recently NBA, WNBA, and MLB players have been criticized as selfish, minimizing the players’ protests.
Conversely, there have been protests that have galvanized the support of White Evangelicals. As a professional football player, Tim Tebow was known for speaking unapologetically about his Christian faith and iconically kneeling after scoring a touchdown. More recently, White Evangelicals enthusiastically supported Sam Coonrod’s refusal to kneel in solidarity with his Giants teammates during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and systemic racism. The MLB pitcher said that as a Christian he can only kneel before God and disagrees with some of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization’s positions.
As the players knelt, Coonrod stood, shifting attention from a message of unity to one of curiosity; why was this one player refusing to kneel? Many Christians have spoken about Coonrod’s protest in a positive way, often referencing the following quote:
“I’m just a Christian. I believe I can’t kneel before anything but God, Jesus Christ. I chose not to kneel. I feel if I did kneel I’d be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite” and “I can’t get on board on a couple of things I’ve read about Black Lives Matter, how they lean toward Marxism and said some negative things about the nuclear family.”
Interestingly, standing for the pledge is a sign of honor, respect, and some may say worship whereas kneeling during the pledge is a sign of lament and dissatisfaction with America. Coonrod’s refusal to kneel may have been just as influenced by his American pride as his Christian beliefs, demonstrating how American pride and Christian worship have become so intertwined that they are often hard to parse out.
Research provides some context for Coonrod’s response. For example, research shows White individuals in general and White Evangelicals in particular are on average less likely to support players taking a knee during the national anthem. Data from the Pew Research Center also show that Whites are less likely to support athletes protesting in general. Despite this data, we have seen Christians express support for Coonrod in his refusal to kneel during the anthem. Coonrod’s decision to not kneel demonstrates Christian Nationalism, and how standing for the flag and standing for Jesus are intertwined for many Christians. In light of the research referenced, it seems that Christians are not against protests or being outspoken, as long as it matches their values.
Reasons behind decisions to kneel or not to kneel are much deeper than team affiliation, they come back to Christian ethics. Below we will review the ethics that mobilize Christians to support Coonrod and contrast them with the Christian ethic that encourages support for Kaepernick.
Traditional White Evangelical Christian Ethics
The protests of Coonrod and Tebow fit within the typical White Evangelical ethic which emphasizes 1) a gospel that is primarily viewed as saving individuals from their private, individual sins and enabling an individual relationship with God, 2) individual and family values that produce socially acceptable behaviors, 3) and a demonstration of Christian devotion to God via evangelism.
Christians who operate from this moral paradigm conceptualize the gospel as being one that bridges the chasm between us and God, that provides us with quality individual and family values to help individuals and their children live godly lives, and that provides Christians with the proper theological truths needed to tell others about Christ. These ethics are not inherently wrong or non-Christian, but when emphasized solely this ethical framework can lead to a narrowed Gospel framework.
The Protests of Coonrod and Tebow
The gospel ethic of White Evangelicals easily fits with the demonstrations of Coonrod and Tebow. Tebow often spoke about his faith, the importance of individual salvation, and the need to verbalize his beliefs on and off the field. He would write Scripture references such as John 3:16, Mark 8:36, and John 16:33 on his eye black. Coonrod’s behaviors were similar. He spoke about the importance of the nuclear family, and stated that he could not kneel in unity with other players due to his Christian values conflicting with those of the Black Lives Matter movement.
White Evangelicals have used the ethics of Coonrod and Tebow to provide excuse for their disengagement from social justice movements since slavery. Christians have asserted that the gospel is about individual salvation for the individual soul, and that advocating for racial justice is therefore a distraction from the gospel. Therefore, addressing unjust systems is seen as periphery at best and at odds with Christianity at worst. They have also frequently cited value differences with the Black Lives Matter movement and indicated that, as a result of these differences in values, they cannot support protests affiliated with Black Lives Matter. Similar to the case of Coonrod, value differences with BLM have led many Christians to abandon social justice protests and movements more generally, even when they have no direct connection to Black Lives Matter.
White Evangelicals often lump all social justice efforts together and then discredit movements to address racial injustice altogether. This line of thinking is not novel but rather employs the same philosophical framework White Evangelicals utilized to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to dismiss any responsibility toward racial justice.
The operative theology is that Christians are called to preach the gospel of individual salvation, engage in good moral behavior, and to instill those morals into their immediate family. The problem is not an issue of authentic Christian morals, it is that the morals they emphasized are not Christian enough.
Toward a More Comprehensive Christian Ethic
A comprehensive Christian ethic acknowledges God’s plan to renew the heavens and the earth in their entirety. Within this ethic, Christians experience individual salvation by faith alone through Christ alone, but the work of the Gospel does not stop there; Christians are saved by faith alone, but not faith that remains alone (James 2:17). God has created people in the image of God (Gen 1:27). He has created them to perfectly relate to one another and with God Himself (Gen 2:23-24), but sin has fractured relationships and resulted in people hating the difference they see in others rather than honoring and dignifying it.
Sin has infiltrated systems and, in the United States, has led to systemic racism, sexism, classism, and so on. In renewing the heavens and earth, God calls His people to work toward dismantling sin within themselves, and within oppressive structures that have been created by humans over time (Amos 9:14). We realize that sin does not merely operate within the lives of individuals, but has impacted every aspect of our existence meaning that political, criminal justice, healthcare, and education systems are all broken.
Christians operating from a full-bodied Christian ethic see the gospel as relevant to our individual salvation, to the way we navigate life, and to issues of social justice. We see that the gospel is relevant to all things, and seek to identify what the gospel has to say about all the ways sin has impacted the world. Christians operating from this Christian ethic understand, admire, and support the protests of Kaepernick, and with the recent NBA, WNBA, and MLB boycotts. These Christians acknowledge that social justice fits perfectly within God’s plan for redemption and renewal and, in fact, see that social justice is merely a macro form of repentance. God does not merely call people to repent (acknowledge sin, turn from it, move toward a new life), but nations as well (Jer 18:8; Lev 26:40-42; Dan: 9:16). Repenting from the horrific systems of oppression that disadvantage people of color is not merely optional, it is necessary for demonstrating an authentic Christian ethic.
White Evangelicals with a more comprehensive Christian ethic may realize that not all protests that name Jesus or Scripture are theologically accurate and not all of those that exclude the name of Jesus are unbiblical. If we realize that God does not divide the secular and the sacred, the soul and the body, the spiritual needs with the physical, then we may begin to see that changing a policy that oppresses people of color or taking a knee to protest policy violence is just as holy as praying, engaging in Bible study, or refraining from sexual impurity; our resistance toward racism should be seen as a holy endeavor.
Platonic philosophy has been one of the major influences of the narrowed Christian ethic that has led Christians to see social justice as a distraction to the work of the Gospel. We see the theological fallacy of Platonism operative in the words of California pastor John MacArthur as he says:
“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.”
Not understanding the connection between social justice solidifies what King had said about White Evangelicals in the 1960s in his letter written from a Birmingham jail:
“In the midst of blatant injustices… I have watched [W]hite churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’”
The theological argument of Christians who say that social justice is not a gospel issue is merely a less direct way of saying that racism is not a problem the church needs to deal with. It is a less direct way of perpetuating racism.
The Christian response to the protests of Coonrod and Kapenernick demonstrate that America finds itself in a similar position in our current cultural climate. White Evangelicals continue to support those that operate from a Christian ethic that upholds their beliefs, that upholds their power. At the end of the day, many White Evangelicals are uncomfortable with racial justice because they are uncomfortable with losing their skin privilege.
Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to lose our lives so that we may gain them (Matt 10:39). God has a vision that His church would reflect the image in heaven of every tribe tongue and nation coming together to praise Jesus (Rev 7:9). Jesus’s initial words to start his earthly ministry were to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). We see that being antiracist is close to the heart of Jesus. In order for the church to authentically reflect God’s design for humanity, it must embrace a Christian ethic that moves beyond individual salvation, morality, and the preservation of the family and move toward one where we seek to love the marginalized and the disenfranchised, and seek to mend the ways sin has broken individuals as well as systems.
Photo by Backbone Campaign