Today we are going to look at a tale of two Christians. The contrast between the two is, I think, very illuminating and instructive as to where we are and what is valued in American Christianity nowadays.
Both are public figures, very public and very outspoken in their Christian commitments. Both are professional athletes who excelled in their sport, though neither is actively playing now. Both are active in philanthropy and in giving back to their respective communities. Both have drawn massive amounts of public and media attention, though for different reasons. Both were known for kneeling publicly at key moments in their games, though for different reasons (more on this later). That is where the similarities end.
One is revered in American Christianity; the other is reviled. One knelt publicly as an act of private prayer; the other as an act of public protest.
I think you can see where this is going. One is Tim Tebow; the other is Colin Kaepernick.
Tim Tebow is the darling of American Christianity and especially American evangelicalism. Evangelical young women want him; evangelical young men want to be him. Tebow was a standout at Florida where he played on two national championship teams in three years; he went on to a not-quite-so-distinguished NFL career and is now playing minor league baseball. Tebow is best known for his Bible verse eye black, his longstanding involvement with his father’s missions organization, and his outspoken commitments to pro-life and sexual purity until marriage. His signature move, kneeling down in private prayer after a big score, is called “Tebowing”. These things resonate in many parts of American evangelicalism.
Colin Kaepernick is the villain of American Christianity and especially American evangelicalism. His name attracts a volume of disdain equal only to that of Satan himself. It is impossible to speak sufficiently evil of him; the more evil you speak of him, the closer you are to God. Kaepernick had been a standout at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. But in 2016 he began to kneel during the performance of the national anthem, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest of police violence against black people. This attracted a boatload of vitriol; fans posted videos of burning his jersey, he was voted the most disliked player in the NFL, and he even received death threats. He was blamed for a drop in NFL TV ratings due to fans boycotting because of his protests (NFL ratings were declining long before he started protesting but that’s beside the point). And when he was cut by the 49ers, denunciation and ridicule among evangelicals was fast and furious. God opposes the proud, they said. Look how the mighty have fallen.
If you’re looking for proof that civil religion is back, here it is. Think about it. Civil religion has a creed: the Pledge of Allegiance. It has a Bible: the Constitution. It has a Cross: the American flag. It has a Savior: The American military. It has a hymn: the national anthem. All these things are idols before which all must bow. Refuse to do so–no matter what your reasons–and you are eternally accursed; your condemnation was written about from the dawn of time. Colin Kaepernick ran afoul of this dictum and has brought the denunciation of all of American evangelicalism upon himself.
Yet even more than this, the contrast between Tebow and Kaepernick reveals a bifurcation in American Christianity. There are two distinct variations; each looks with distrust and disdain upon the other. One is committed to personal salvation and private devotion; the other is committed to public activism and social/political transformation. One is vehemently opposed to private sins like abortion and gay marriage; the other is equally vehement in its denunciation of public sins like racial discrimination.
The truth is, we need both. Public activism is fruitless unless it is motivated by a spiritual root and a vital connection with the living God; private devotion is equally useless unless it results in a life of care and concern for others. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, we should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth”, able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place”. We need the reality of a vital connection to God while recognizing that people are the heart of God’s care and concern and how one treats other people matters immensely to God.
Compare this with the American civil religion which is all over the place in American evangelicalism and which doesn’t give a shit how you treat other people as long as you stand when the national anthem is being played.