We’ve noticed a lot of people coming to the blog to read our post What does the United States national anthem mean? as more NFL players have been kneeling in silent protest during the anthem before games. Debate over this protest has focused on whether it is unpatriotic because it disrespects the flag.
What does our flag represent? In the Pledge of Allegiance, we say that we
pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
Yes, we skip the “under God” part, which was tacked on during the Cold War (see The Pledge of Allegiance at 60) but even if you include it, you see that when we salute the flag we are committing ourselves as citizens to the principles of unity, liberty, and justice for all. “I pledge allegiance to the flag because it represents a nation that is united in offering liberty and justice to all.”
The national anthem is sung at sports events while enormous flags are unfurled across the stadium or from the roof of the court. The flag is the symbol of the indivisible nation we are committing ourselves to support. This is a moment of good faith: the flag stands in for our country, and we honor it by promising to uphold its founding principles.
So the anthem is an entirely appropriate time and place to protest any violation of those founding principles of liberty and justice for all. In fact, it is the height of patriotism to say, “I’m not going to pay lip service to the flag by saying I give my allegiance to the principle of liberty and justice for all but then ignoring flagrant violations of that principle. I’m not going to pretend that what the flag stands for is not being systematically violated. I will not support a good faith gesture being made in bad faith.”
We disrespect the flag when we thoughtlessly salute it, when we salute it while ignoring the violations of our national principles, when we act like saluting the flag is patriotism. Singing the national anthem and saluting the flag are not in themselves patriotic acts. They can be, if they are performed with the serious intention of working to uphold the principles the flag and anthem stand for. But if we’re just mouthing words and waiting for the game to start, they are not patriotic. If we sing the words and put our hands over our hearts while doing nothing to fight for our country, that is not patriotic.
The flag and the anthem are not about supporting U.S. soldiers, as many people have come to believe over the past decade. They are not supposed to represent the military. They are not supposed to represent an ultimatum to hostile foreign nations. The flag and the anthem represent our founding principles of a people united in maintaining liberty and justice for each other in every way, in every place in this country. So kneeling during the anthem is not an insult to our military.
There are many ways to fight for America that don’t involve being a soldier. Whenever you fight for liberty and justice for all, you are protecting America. Sometimes that battle takes place in schools. Sometimes it takes place in courts of law. It can and does take place in business offices, factory floors, newspaper articles, playgrounds, restaurants, living rooms, and yes, sports arenas. Wherever you stand up for someone else’s civil rights, you are fighting to protect America.
And so when athletes take advantage of a national stage to nonviolently protest the unpunished persecution and murder of black Americans, that is appropriate. They are respecting the flag and our country by showing that the words we sing in the anthem and the hand we place over our heart should really mean something. They are holding us all accountable for living up to the pledge we all make.
The anthem is not just a feel-good moment. It’s serious. It’s a symbolic recommitment of every generation of Americans to the whole purpose of America, which is to be truly democratic, to offer life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all citizens, without malice, with liberty and justice for all. If that’s not being honored, it’s better to sit it out. Kneeling during the anthem is a powerful statement. No one does it lightly. It’s a red flag, a wake-up call to all Americans that there is an actual and serious violation of our national principles going on.
As one American said on the radio this morning, Just because you put on a uniform doesn’t mean you give up your right to freedom of speech. We would add that it doesn’t mean you give up your right to sound the alarm when our national principles are at risk. That’s what we call patriotism.