Social Justice™: Seeking Integrity in a Society of Co-Opted Principle

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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Hermeneutics, In the News. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Social Justice™: Seeking Integrity in a Society of Co-Opted Principle

  1. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    Apparently, my parents were raised in churches where patriotism was presented as part of being a Christian.

    They wisely reacted against this, to the extent that I got the impression that in order to be a good Christian, you had to be ashamed of being an American. This dovetailed nicely with the messages I was getting at school about the many sins of colonialism.

    Message received: it’s wrong to be an American, and to have a better standard of living than anyone else in the world.

    I was also taught that nonviolent resistance was part of Christianity, that not only Christian individuals but even nation-states have no right to use violence of any kind to defend themselves against violence. Message received: it’s wrong to maintain your national identity, or even to have one, really.

    So, while the cult of patriotism you describe is certainly out there, it’s hard for this American Christian to relate to it.

    • Yes, there are definitely such messages out there, messages that simply react against or invert the cult of patriotism, although I doubt they predominate in the experience of most of the readers of this blog. Such alternative messages have all sorts of problems of their own.

    • John says:

      In my experience, mainline American churches tend to exhibit this negative posture toward patriotism. On the other hand, most conservative (evangelical and fundamentalist) churches seem to present patriotism as a corollary, rather than a requirement, of being a Christian in the U.S. I’ve spent time in both camps, and the difference is quite marked.

  2. John says:

    Thanks for pointing this out, Dr Roberts. We definitely see more clearly, thanks to Kaepernick and those who followed, that the cult of patriotism has its own ‘obliged speech’. The transgression of the code of this cult is taken very seriously, including by those of us who find the ‘coerced speech’ of the LGBTQ movement so onerous and inappropriate. It’s never comfortable when the shoe is on the other foot, is it?

  3. John says:

    I did not realise that Kaepernick had been featured in a Nike ad – looks like it debuted just today. I am very surprised that someone so principled would agree to such a thing. Perhaps devotion to the dollar is even more deep-seated, for some, than that to the flag.

    • It is entirely possible that Kaepernick sees this as a way to spread his principled message, not realizing how the framing of the advert changes it.

      • John says:

        I do admire Kaepernick’s courage, and have no doubt that he sees participating in this campaign as a way to advance the cause – especially in the Age of Trump. However, I think that, having eschewed a sacred cow at great cost, he will forfeit any moral high ground thus gained by choosing to cosy up to Nike. Talk about selling out! I believe John Lennon must be rolling over in his grave (see 1987 Nike ‘Revolution’ ad). Nike seems to have a penchant for co-opting movements.

  4. John says:

    I do admire Kaepernick’s courage, and have no doubt that he sees participating in this campaign as a way to advance the cause – especially in the Age of Trump. However, I think that, having eschewed a sacred cow at great cost, he will forfeit any moral high ground thus gained by choosing to cosy up to Nike. Talk about selling out! I believe John Lennon must be rolling over in his grave (see 1987 Nike ‘Revolution’ ad). Nike seems to have a penchant for co-opting movements.

  5. Orja says:

    Hi Alastair,

    Thanks for this post. It is one of those rare short ones. I had to scroll down initially to see if you wouldn’t link us to another website for the full thing. But I always enjoy you, (short or long) and dedicate time to read your older posts every week.

    I actually read this one with excitement primarily because I have been expecting your articles on social justice. And would be resident in America much for some years. It is the ‘issue’ in American evangelicalism. I am wondering how to navigate biblically and charitably.

    One of my first reactions to your post was to ask about the way the modern world uses the terms ‘movements’ and ‘revolution’. I am thinking precisely about how those terms usually synonymous with protests and hashtags but not tied to slow, passionate and ‘sacrificial’ work aimed at engendering transformation. I am thinking also about this ‘detached, virtual-based and unsacrificial’ use of the word ‘revolution’ might impact my understanding of events like the reformation.

    Your point on social media is apt. Is it right to think that social justice as we have it couldn’t have happened without social media? I think it is true. It is this tie of social justice and social media. I tend to view social justice as a ‘quasi-global constitution’ with social media being the International Court at Hague.

    Let me digress a bit here. My concern as an outsider is how do we be patriotic without succumbing to the cult of patriotism (you seem to be a proud Englishman from a couple of tweets and posts). And how do we kneel ‘against’ the institutions of the day (sometimes the church) without coming out as cynical? There is too much dissatisfaction with the church among millennials it makes me wonder how we even measure progress. Like how will we know when it is time to stand and not kneel.

    • There is absolutely nothing wrong with patriotism per se. However, there are a number of ways that it can go wrong. First, pride in one’s country and people can become narrowly focused upon pride in the state. Second, one’s country can be identified with justice as such, when our pride in our countries should be similar to our pride in our families. Third, one’s country can assume an idolatrous status, as that for which you will sacrifice everything and against which you can tolerate no challenge.

      At its best, there is something delightful about an American patriotism that doesn’t harbour illusions about America’s historic and continuing sins and flaws, but which celebrates the many great things about America nonetheless. Americans have a very great deal of which to be proud and such pride can exist alongside honesty about its injustices.

      One of the problems we do face is that patriotic visions are increasingly becoming ideological in character. As our actual cultures are thinned out into a radical diverse consumeristic individualism and we lack a common historically grounded and culturally dense peoplehood to celebrate, astroturfed ideologies are increasingly what is left on both the right and the left. Right wing nationalism and racist identitarian ideologies are merely an alternative to left wing identity politics on the right. And these abstract ideologies produce a vicious tribalism on all sides.

      Yes, I think that the current form of social justice really wouldn’t exist without social media. We should neither miss the good things about this (think of the many injustices that are currently coming to light and being challenged, for instance), nor the real problems.

      One of the effects of all of this is that spectacle eclipses reality. For instance, Nike’s ad isn’t really about the issue of police brutality. How many people are actually talking in detail about police brutality at the moment? No, it is about exploiting the progressive cultural symbol that is Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is a rallying symbol for those of the progressive tribe, even if people have grown bored of or even forgotten the reason why he first took a knee. An image of protest is far sexier than the knotty practical questions of law and order in modern America. The same was the case with Black Lives Matter, which functioned more as a tribal identity marker than as an effective spotlight on reality.

      This is a more general phenomenon, of course. We are preoccupied with spectacle and symbol over reality. We would sooner devote hot takes to the symbolism of Wakanda than to the actual reality of African countries, for instance. This is not to deny the importance of the symbolism of the spectacle. However, we have arguably never been so preoccupied with that symbolism and neglectful of reality.

      I think that the best thing we can do is to pursue action beyond the spotlight of the spectacle. I thought Matt Anderson’s recent BBQ for police officers and prisoners and their families was a great example of such action, something that addresses the very real problems, but in a way that is very much grounded in reality.

  6. cal says:

    The end of Madmen really does justice to the guts of this post. The ambiguity of the end, with the Coke commercial, leaves the meaning in the viewer’s hands, even if it wasn’t intended: did advertising’s fusion with the counterculture mean a triumph of the cause or its corruption and the continued boom of Mad Ave? It’s rather harrowing.

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