A national anthem is but a song. A flag is a piece of cloth. Yet, like the wafer that turns into the body of Christ and the wine that turns into His blood, some transubstantiate these symbols into the idea of the United States as a country. Those who are not awed into submission by these symbols, they say, should be shunned by society and fired from their jobs.
Yet the United States of America is neither a religion nor a feudal aristocracy. Americans refuse to bow and scrape before monarchs, so why should we treat a song or a piece of cloth in ways that we don’t feel compelled to apply to human leaders?
The transubstantiation of a piece of cloth into the country is made explicit when we “pledge allegiance to the flag . . . and to the republic for which it stands.” Yet this pledge was written by a socialist who believed American children were too individualistic and needed to be instilled with a sense of collectivism. This makes it especially ironic that a political party that claims to believe in freedom insists on the pledge of allegiance and standing for the national anthem, while the more collectivist party accepts resistance to those traditions.
It is particularly interesting that this controversy has been raised over the use of the flag and anthem before games of gridiron–the name other countries give to the sport we call football. Few realize that gridiron, as opposed to soccer, has become our most popular sport because we have commercial television where other countries have government-owned, non-commercial television.
Soccer is played in two 45-minute non-stop periods, offering little room for commercial breaks. In contrast, the National Gridiron League–excuse me, National Football League–has specifically shaped the rules of gridiron to allow for frequent commercial breaks.
I’m not saying one way is better than the other, but those who support freedom should recognize that gridiron is a creature of free enterprise rather than government ownership and control, and is a commercial, not a political or religious, exercise. Just as we don’t genuflect as we walk into an automobile showroom or rise to salute every flag on sale in the local Walmart, there is no reason to confuse a game of gridiron with some sacred act of transubstantiation.
In the United States, at least, the flag and national anthem are not meant to command blind obedience but to inspire us to make sacrifices on behalf of other citizens. Such sacrifices seem particularly relevant today in view of the hardships recently imposed upon our fellow Americans in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.
Yet, for most, those hardships will only be temporary. Another group of Americans has suffered more persistent difficulties: African-Americans, whose average per capita incomes have consistently remained under 60 percent of non-Hispanic white per capita incomes. While other groups, from Irish to Asians to Latinos, have arrived in poverty and yet been able to achieve the American dream within two or three generations, blacks have remained poor for generation after generation.
Whether or not you believe the police are systematically prejudiced against blacks, the economic numbers show something is wrong with our nation. That something is a racial bias throughout our political system.
White educators think blacks are ineducable, so many predominately black high schools don’t offer students enough basic courses to succeed in college. White social workers think blacks cannot hold a steady job, so welfare programs make black families dependent on government support. White urban planners think getting middle-class commuters out of their cars is more important than helping low-income people get to work, so they cut bus service to black neighborhoods in order to finance light-rail lines into white suburbs. White progressives pay lip service to solidarity with blacks but support land-use policies that make housing expensive and force blacks to move out of their communities.
I am white but even I can see these biases. Blacks who have to live with them every day can list many more. So it is no wonder that black gridiron players, and their white team members, respond to the national anthem differently from those who view the anthem and flag as a demand for national obedience.
In taking the knee during the anthem, gridiron players are inspiring people to make sacrifices for the benefit of their fellow Americans. In doing so, they are living up to the true spirit of the national anthem and paying more respect to the flag than those who demand conformity and undeserved respect for institutions that have systematically favored some people over others because of the color of their skin.
We live in a free country, and just as people are free to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem in protest of racial prejudice, others are free to boycott a sport that allows people to protest that prejudice. But those who truly believe in freedom will not castigate others for making choices that differ from our own.