— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018
Beyond drawing attention to the specific issue of racial injustice, in kneeling for the American national anthem before the start of games, Colin Kaepernick’s actions served to expose the power of the American cult of patriotism, which has steadily brought professional sports into its orbit. While many justifiably lament the increasing politicization of every area of life, it wasn’t Kaepernick who really initiated the politicization of the NFL. The spread of the cult of the state and the military in American football was considerably advanced before Kaepernick ever took a knee.
People who vocally resist the ‘compelled speech’ of preferred pronouns for trans persons or cakes baked in celebration of same-sex weddings should recognize that American sports increasingly involve a sort of—if not compelled—at least obliged speech of patriotism. For the power of the cult to be made manifest, all Kaepernick had to do was to kneel.
The cult of patriotism, with its particularly close conceptual attachment to the validation and celebration of American might in its military and its police, is not only seen in football games. It is also seen in the civil religion that is part of the wallpaper of much of American life, within which things such as the flag and the anthem are all implicitly theologized symbols and America is the one true church, resting beneath the settled smile of its effaced deity.
What the cult of American patriotism did was gradually to co-opt the inherently unpolitical act of participating in a sports game—whether as a spectator or an athlete—and reframe it as an implicit celebration and validation of American might and social order (something similar has happened to many churches in the US). This ideology is almost invariably veiled to some extent: most people involved would not regard themselves as making any strong statement with their participation, but just going along with a fairly innocuous mass ritual. When someone failed to participate, however, it soon began to become apparent that a great deal more symbolic weight was invested in the patriotic rituals than many might have supposed.
While ‘compelled patriotic speech’ might be overstating matters—although perhaps not, when one considers the consequences Kaepernick’s actions had for his employment prospects—there is at the least a sort of co-option of certain formerly neutral rituals and activities as political and civil statements. To participate in an activity that is inherently non-political, one must validate and affirm a political ideology. Ideological demands gradually become more intrusive, gradually squeezing out dissenters. While conservatives may rightly complain about companies that put pressure on their employees to display support for LGBTQ causes, they are much less alert to the creeping demands of the cult of patriotism.
Colin Kaepernick took a knee against the co-option of his participation in a football match in order to validate American might and order. Whatever we might think about the beliefs that motivated his refusal to stand for the anthem, he revealed something about the subtle ways in which such rituals can make demands upon our integrity.
Which is why it is so striking to me that the man who would not stand for the American patriotic cult is now standing for the cult of the market.
‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’
Taken by themselves, these are powerful words. However, when they are rendered an advertising slogan, they are radically debased. While the locutionary act of the statement (the surface meaning of the words themselves) remains the same, its illocutionary force (its intended effect) has shifted markedly. The illocutionary force is now to associate Nike with one’s highest commitments and to buy Nike’s products in order to ‘brand’ oneself as the sort of person.
‘Believe in something…. Believe in Nike.’
Neoliberalism, as some have observed, is social justice (#NLSJ). While they are seldom as inept in execution as Pepsi was with its protest ad of a year or so ago, big businesses have proved remarkably eager to associate themselves with the culturally ascendant values of various social justice movements. However, what the Pepsi ad does reveal is how essentially unprincipled such associations can be, as the attractive and youthful aesthetics of protest and social justice movements—with their foregrounding of the individual consumer and celebration of their unfettered self-expression—are often more appealing than the specific things for which they stand. In some this co-option of social justice by corporations will produce cynicism; in many others, however, it will merely reinforce the cult of consumerism and the debilitated selfhood that it sells its subjects.
As I’ve remarked in the past, social media also effects a related degrading of our moral discourse, as the acute attention to self-branding that it encourages increasingly pulls our moral discourse towards the reflexivity of self-representation. Our discourse becomes less objective and truth-driven in its orientation and more preoccupied with brand management for our online personae. In a realm where we are defined almost entirely by our words, where actions barely register, scrupulously saying those things that reflect well upon our character in the eyes of those people whose judgment we most care about at all times can becomes exceedingly important.
Whether it is the cult of patriotism, the cult of individualistic consumerism and choice, or the various cults of self-expressive identity, it can be incredibly difficult to extricate ourselves from their attempts to co-opt us and our speech. The self-expressive ethos of the Internet can subtly compromise any expression of Christian truth upon it. To declare that ‘Jesus is Lord’ and have those words ring clear and true is not possible where the self-expression and autonomy of interchangeable individuals are governing principles.
For all of the churches that have succumbed to the cult of patriotism, a great many more are entangled in the cult of the consumer. Much of evangelicalism, for instance, is built around the reality of the self-expressive, individualistic, and autonomous religious consumer. And this is hardly exclusive to evangelicalism: a great many people who are in high church traditions are no less committed to a sort of self-expressive religious consumerism, albeit driven by a different set of aesthetic values and cultural and social affiliations.
We would be foolish to think that we can straightforwardly extricate ourselves from this religious consumerism. It is the water that we swim in, much as virtue-signalling is something that we are all inescapably involved in online. In large measure this is simply a consequence of our material reality, a result of our possession of cars, TVs, online personae, etc. and our living in societies ordered around such things.
We should, however, seek to mitigate where we can the power that these things have over us, to develop tactics of resistance to their determination and framing of our values, behaviours, and thinking. Looking at the way Colin Kaepernick’s principled stance is debased by its co-option by advertisers, we should be even more alert to the insidious ways in which our own speech is degraded by forces in our society, and more creatively attentive to ways in which we can push against this.
 I am, of course, saying all of this as an Englishman. While the specks in the eyes of my brethren across the Atlantic appear with great clarity, they should not distract me from the planks in my own eyes and those of my compatriots. The cult of the American state has almost unavoidable been more extensive, as America has a much thinner peoplehood to rest upon and some common sense of identity has to be vigorously ‘astroturfed’, and civil religion and patriotic ritual are some of the most promising ways of going about this. As the UK moves from being defined by its composite nations—England, Scotland, Wales, and (Northern) Ireland—and becomes a multi-ethnic state, it is also exhibiting a lurch towards the inculcation of progressive state ideology as a source of unity. The lack of clear alternatives is a genuine problem, and even more so as ‘astroturfed’ identities themselves become sources of conflict and division.