Free speech can be quite controversial.
But this shouldn’t be surprising. If we all agreed on everything, we wouldn’t need the First Amendment. Unpopular speech is why we have the First Amendment. And, let me be clear, Colin Kaepernick was exercising his First-Amendment right when he kneeled during the national anthem.
Yesterday, President Donald Trump exercised his First-Amendment right when he called on NFL owners to release players who took a knee during the anthem. And when the president called on fans to boycott NFL football, that was still about citizens exercising their rights.
So, none of these things are illegal. But the question is, are they helpful?
To be honest, I don’t know much about football. Google only recently told me that Kaepernick is a quarterback. He has been protesting what he sees as racial injustice in America by kneeling during the national anthem.
Protests and Patriotism
I’m not a big fan of “totalizing” protests—the national anthem is a symbol of many things and so much of that is good. Furthermore, the flag and the anthem represent the sacrifice of many who have fought and died for our freedoms, including our freedom of speech. As such, I do find such protests disrespectful.
However, I do not have to be a fan of the protest to reflect on the president’s comments and how Christians might react. So here are a few ways we might respond to what is now a national conversation surrounding Kaepernick and President Trump.
First, the response of many African-Americans (including fellow Christians) should give us pause to reflect on their response.
I get it. Like me, many of you are offended by people who dishonor the flag and the anthem. Patriotism is important to me, and we even read the Declaration of Independence at our house on the Fourth of July. And we stand for the anthem because we are thankful for this country.
Yet, if you saw the news on Sunday, you saw many African-American players kneeling, joining Kaepernick in what many see as an unpatriotic moment. This protest initially only consisted of a few players, but in the wake of President Trump’s comments, there have been a growing number of African-Americans speaking out on social media and on the football field in defense of those who kneeled.
Leading athletes who typically avoid controversy have spoken passionately in support of peaceful protest. Benjamin Watson, a well-known evangelical NFL player with his own author page at the Gospel Coalition, tweeted:
At this time engagement is paramount. Divisions are restored by listening and acting. Divisions are widened by name calling and dismissing.
I’ve published literally tens of thousands of words about the race concerns that Kaepernick and his fellow protesters have raised, so I encourage you to take a moment to get beyond the protest and consider the issues.
For many white evangelicals, our first reaction to these protests might be confusion or, worse, anger. But when a community speaks as quickly and in unison about their pain, frustration and fear, we are obligated—by our love for the body of Christ and by our mission to bring the love of Christ to all—to stop first and tweet later.
In light of this calling, our first action before reaching for Twitter or Facebook or switching the channel should be to prayerfully reflect on the causes behind these reactions. Then, we must ask God how we should act.
Second, we should ask if the responses here are helpful.
Yes, everyone here has the right to speak. This includes Kaepernick and the president. But we need to ask, are their words and actions helping?
Fundamental to patriotism is the belief in free speech—it’s part of why soldiers have fought and died in defense of this American experiment. And before the leader of the free world became involved, it was just that: a protest against racial injustice. For what it’s worth, I believe it to be an unhelpful protest, but it is one that has happened before, and the U.S. has survived.
Regrettably and unnecessarily, President Trump’s comments have further divided the country, since this is not simply a protest about football, but about race. Kaepernick was an unsigned quarterback. This situation simply did not need a response from the president.
Yesterday, White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short indicated that the “The president believes it is his role to improve race relations.” Whether you agree or disagree with the president’s comments, this did not help that cause.
Third, although this is unpopular speech, it is worth remembering that Christians have some unpopular speech, as well.
This might be a time to “do unto others as we want done unto us.”
Perhaps an evangelical-focused hypothetical might help. Consider if Hillary Clinton were president and she called out professors for having a discriminatory (or what evangelicals call “biblical”) view of marriage, encouraging universities to fire people who hold such beliefs, and students to boycott schools that hold such doctrines.
I am not saying this would have happened. However, looking at the current cultural trajectory, including how dissenters are being treated, it would not be hard for some to imagine such a scenario—which may help illustrate the point to my fellow evangelicals.
And, might I add, if she were to do this, Hillary Clinton would have been exercising her free speech.
So, everyone here has a right to do what they are doing. But again, let’s ask, is it helpful? Simply put, do we really want to force people to lose their jobs because we disagree with them?
If current trends continue, Christians will be penalized for their speech soon enough. Actually, some already have been. This is one of the significant religious-liberty issues right now. Most of these realities, however, have to do with employment or businesses—so don’t miss this.
Why? Well, they didn’t kneel to the prevailing views of the day. So ultimately, the question is, can we hold an unpopular opinion and keep our jobs?
If you don’t think that’s an issue, you have not been paying attention to the recent religious-test debates.
A Better Way
I think we all want to live in a country where presidents and politicians do not go after certain groups of people and target their employment due to the unpopularity of their beliefs.
I understand (and actually agree) that Kaepernick’s approach is and was not helpful. There is a time and a place for peaceful protest in civil society. However, his selection of time and space during the singing of the national anthem—moments set aside to honor the sacrifice of countless patriots—was an unwise choice. (And, thankfully, you can have a different opinion.) However, it appears that almost all other players agreed—until the president started calling for people to be fired.
As a patriot, I defend the right of people to peacefully protest by simply taking a knee.
So, before you disagree, NFL fans can do whatever they want. And the president can say whatever he wants.
But before you cheer on his words while tearing down the words of others, keep in mind that speech is free even when it’s unpopular. Depending on the circumstances, unpopular speech is sometimes your speech and related to your job.
In other words, the cleat may soon be on the other foot.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.