Kaepernick took a knee, Trump took a photo op. These moments are seared in the collective American consciousness. And both moments are unavoidably religious. Each deals with sacred symbols: a flag, a book of faith. Both surface theological questions. Who or what do we worship? How should we live in this world?
The irony of violence, and the theology inherent in a Christianity that welcomes the photo-op and decries taking a knee, demands not only our attention but a response.The very man who called Kaepernick and other NFL players “sons of b******” for kneeling was the same leader touting the Bible in a photo-op that required the violent tear gassing of protestors.
Imagining a way forward will be next week’s conclusion. This week, by examining the theology inherent in the anthem protests and the St. John’s Church photo-op, we can see the unique theological shape of Culture War Christianity. A shape that, ultimately, proves itself unfit to witness to the risen Jesus in the world.
I aim to show the theology driving CWC leads us to conclude that it is a dangerous and deficient expression of Christian faith in modern America. I believe Culture War Christianity has two inherent theological problems: how it conceives of the Kingdom of God and the Church of God. Both of these deficient theologies are at play in the Anthem protests and the Church photo op.
Take A Knee
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem before the start of an NFL preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. He would continue this trend into the regular season. He shared his reasoning with reporters:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick is remembered for kneeling. But it didn’t begin that way. His decision to move off the bench and kneel on the sideline was the result of an open letter from a former Army Green Beret and NFL player named Nate Boyer. Boyer wrote,
I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right. What you are doing takes a lot of courage…There are already plenty people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. So I’m just going to keep listening, with an open mind. I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. I’ll be standing right there next to you. Keep on trying. De Oppresso Liber.
This conversation between military veterans and NFL players helped facilitate change. Boyer convinced Kaepernick to move from the bench to kneeling on the sideline out of respect for military personnel, in a way that kept his conscience in tact. The dialogue, as evidenced by Boyer’s letter, also exposed previously unaware American citizens to a fresh call for ethnic unity and justice in America.
But the protests also enflamed Culture War Christians. Many viewed the protests as a sign of disrespect against the American flag. Which they believed was desecrated and dishonored. These descriptors are inherently religious and theological. We should not be surprised. The American flag, in the collective conscience of many Culture War Christians, is a religious symbol. Even a Christian symbol. Kaepernick’s kneeling had violated the sacrosanct place of the flag in Christian Nationalist liturgy. But it also served as a mirror. Kaepernick showed the country what Culture War Christians worshipped.
A Theology of Kneeling
Kaepernick’s protest was—in the great tradition of the Civil Rights Movement—a form of non-violence. His kneeling was peaceful. Many of his detractors were not. When Kaepernick took a knee, he figuratively re-opened the original theological fissure that had created CWC itself: a reticent concern for ethnic justice mixed with a willingness to fight for the moral condition of America.
Simply put, this posture from Culture War Christians is not in step with the Kingdom of Jesus. How do you ignore ethnic justice and claim to be the answer for the moral condition of America? It is deficient theologically. And it proceeds from a limited view of the Kingdom of God. Let me illustrate.
Ask yourself, what is an Oreo without the creme filling? Not much. When we talk about an Oreo, we talk about one great big (delicious) cookie. Theologically, the resurrection, reign, and return of Jesus all signal one great big reality: the Kingdom of God. But I want you to think about the first and third events (Jesus’ resurrection and return) as the Oreo cookies or biscuits—without the creme. CWC puts toothpaste where there should be delicious Oreo filling.
In the place of Jesus’ active reign today, we find American Christians given to other reigning power structures: nationalism, racism, misogyny, and bigotry. They are discipled by political—not resurrection—power. This is partly the reason why Culture War Christians took greater issue with Kaepernick’s supposed desecration of the flag than they might with his concerns over police brutality against image bearers. They operate in a power structure other than the Kingdom of Jesus.
Christians caught up in Culture War Christianity justify themselves with a prayer they’ve prayed. Then, they baptize their present allegiances in the waters of politics, not of resurrection. More and more, they identify themselves in the war between Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. And the rules of engagement in American politics are not the rules of engagement with the Kingdom of God.
How do we step away from such a limited view of the Kingdom of God? By retrieving the importance of Jesus’ present reign, and widening the scope of his reign beyond personal morality. Back to our analogy. The Oreo filling represents the reign of Jesus. Taken together, biscuits and creme, you’ve got a fully developed theology of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ resurrection, active reign in the Church, and future return cannot be understood as individual, miraculous events, but as one reality, in which Christians from every generation participate since Easter morning.
The Culture War gospel is as disruptive to orthodox Christianity as a toothpaste filled Oreo is to the human digestive tract.
CWC does not ignore the present reign of Jesus entirely. But it restricts the extent of Jesus’ rule in a way that invites compromise and complicity. Jesus rules over your life, but not much more. This hyper-individualism is more in line with the Enlightenment and the Philosopher Decartes than with Jesus Christ who said “the Kingdom of God is within your (plural) midst.”
But CWC postpones the reign of Jesus by tying it to his return. “He’ll reign when he comes back, until then, he reigns in your heart.” If you question the veracity of this claim, look no further than the common gospel presentations in our churches: pray a prayer and you’re set for eternity.
So CWC thus disciples an entire generation with a delayed sense of relevancy for their faith. Sure, Jesus helps us be good, moral people now. But when we move beyond an individual faith, beyond “making Jesus lord of your life”, CWC’s theological calculus sounds something like this: the Kingdom of God won’t be here for awhile, so we need to fight like hell to have a semblance of good, even if it requires us to take action that is fundamentally uncharacteristic of Jesus’ rule. After all, his rule is in the future anyway.
Kaepernick’s kneeling is a perfect theological case study in how American Christians, discipled within CWC, move to protect the sacrosanct symbol of the American flag (and support leaders who do the same) rather than subordinate their patriotism (which has its place) beneath their Christian identity that promotes love of neighbor as paramount. And they way in which Culture War Christians moved to protect this symbol was evident of their loyalty to power sourced not from the Spirit of Jesus, but from the spirit of the age.
Take A Photo Op
Back in 2016, President Trump played a crucial role in amplifying the combat readiness of Culture War Christians, both in his rhetoric of violence and in the actions of his administration. As the protests grew, he referred to NFL players who protested as “sons of bitches.” Vice President Pence stood and left an NFL game during the anthem, offering a statement on Twitter:
I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag, or our National Anthem,
Never mind that Kaepernick had demonstrated a willingness to listen to veterans, or that his own coach disputed the administration’s framing of Kaepernick’s motivations. Namely, that he was inherently harboring disrespect towards American soldiers. But the Trump administration, and many Culture War Christians, continued to treat the NFL protests as a rallying cry. Proof that America was not great, and that Christians had an obligation to make it great again.
Four years later, Washington DC was filled with racial protests over police brutality and racism. The very issues Kaepernick spoke out against at the start of Trump’s Presidency. In a unilateral decision, President Trump ordered a path cleared that would allow him to walk from the White House to St. John’s Church. The protestors were cleared with tear gas. Today, the US Government claims the protestors were violent. While videos and media members tell a different story—one where the government violently dispersed peaceful protestors. In a telling statement, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for standing by the President near St. Johns. He felt the military shouldn’t have been visible in the President’s decision to clear protestors over what amounted to a photo-op.
The image of President Trump, standing in front of St. John’s Church with a Bible, is a brilliant display of power. In a single image, he centered Culture War Christianity as the ideal response to the racial protests engulfing the country. As an image, it portrays the American President as something ironically unAmerican—the head of the Church.
A Theology of Photo-Ops
CWC often conflates being Christian and American. As if they are a singular experience. This is problematic for Christian ecclesiology, for the Church, just as much as it is for Christian eschatology, the Kingdom of God. Insisting that America is a Christian nation, and welcoming a conflation of the roles Presidency and Pastor ignores the unique shape of the Church. This may seem like a generalization, but in the specific instance of Trump’s photo-op, it is theologically valid.
Christian reaction to Kaepernick’s kneeling revealed a postponed eschatology. Christian reaction to Trump’s photo-op revealed a projected ecclesiology. Where we critiqued CWC for having too limited a conception of the Kingdom of God with regards to race, captive to partisan sensibilities. We now pivot to critique too broad a conception of the Church of God with regard to State. Trump’s use of the Christian Scripture as a prop, his placement in front of the Church, conflates the relationship between the Church and State. Trump positioned himself as not only the Head of State, but the Head of the Church. He achieved this pose with actions uncharacteristic of Jesus, namely the tear gassing of protestors. Jesus came by his power through the suffering of the Cross, not the clearing out of his enemies with violence. Christians who celebrate Trump’s “defense of Christianity” by his use of violence betrays just how distant Culture War Christianity is from the Cross.
This association of Church with State (whether actual or imagined) has done severe damage to the witness of the Church. This long relationship has a name: Christendom. As we’ve stated regarding the Civil Rights Movement, it is not just the views we hold or the change we wish to see, but the way we hold them. This is key for understanding the theological deficiency in Trump’s photo-op. The prop, placement, and tear-gassed protestors, must be seen as a whole. Outside the crisp cropped lines of a photograph is a deficient theological vision. One that too readily associates Christian faithfulness with American patriotism.
Theologically, our ecclesiology is inherently tied to our eschatology. The Church relates to the Kingdom of God as its citizens. This loyalty is exclusive. And is not to be rivaled by Empire. This was the problem with Christendom. For Culture War Christians to increasingly identify the cause of America with the cause of the Church betrays an agreement with power that is rightly anathema to the Spirit of Jesus. That race or ethnicity is the fissure upon which this agreement was forged reveals how historic, how deficient, and how dangerous such expressions of Christianity are in the modern world.
The theological shape of Culture War Christianity cannot be understood apart from its eschatology and ecclesiology. It limits a conception of the Kingdom of God to the individual, and postpones it’s realization in such a way that justifies the use of temporary power structures for Christian faithfulness. It broadens the conception of the Church of God and conflates citizenry in the State with citizenry in Heaven. Again, the theological problem is not whether or not to influence culture, but how. And to that end, Culture War Christianity has not positioned itself within the stream of Christian tradition that locates the active, and present reign of Jesus with responsibility for the Church, apart from the machinations of Christendom. Next week, we will imagine a way forward, away from Culture War Christianity.