THE BLOG
09/30/2016 05:50 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2017

On David Brooks And Colin Kaepernick

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem in protest against "police brutality and social injustice" has provoked much righteous outrage. Thoughtful critics like New York Times columnist David Brooks have tried to dissuade younger football players from following Kaepernick's example.

Beginning with the Puritans, Brooks argues, America has embraced a "civic religion," a creed based on the notion of equality that has "shaped efforts at reform" and "bonded Americans together." Commitment to this belief has moved us inexorably toward change in a positive direction, according to Brooks, and failure to transmit this creed through our rituals--like standing and singing the National Anthem--will compromise our sense of solidarity at a time when we desperately need to keep in mind that "we are all in this together."

As a professor of American history who specializes both in religious history and in the African-American experience, I find serious shortcomings in Brooks' analysis. Most problematically, he flattens a complicated story to the point of distortion.

The American belief in "equality," as Brooks portrays it, did not emerge full-formed from the forehead of the Puritan divines. To the extent that the Revolutionary generation embraced such an ideal, they also betrayed those beliefs in their treatment of African-Americans, Native Americans, women, unpropertied men, Catholics, and the Irish, to name just a few. Nor was that creed handed down wholesale generation after generation. Rather, it has been modified, transformed, and refined by each generation. Today's understandings of "all men are created equal" differ dramatically from Thomas Jefferson's intent and meaning when he wrote those words.

Perhaps most problematically, Brooks ignores how dissenters have provoked America to live up to its highest ideals. The transformations that have brought us closer to the ideal of equality have not materialized from the ether of patriotic rituals.

Rather, reform has most often arisen from the work of critics and prophetic provocateurs--the thousands of Susan B. Anthonys, Sitting Bulls, Father John Hugheses, Frederick Douglasses, and Caesar Chavezes who refused to indulge their fellow citizens in the comfortable misbelief that the American creed was American reality. In the mode of Colin Kaepernick, these dissenters forced their countrymen to pay attention to the injustice around them. They employed radical and unsettling methods--some ran away from their masters, organized workers to march, sat-in at lunch counters or, simply, voted. Their agendas seemed radical, their methods controversial, and many people decried their lack of "patriotism."

Even more noteworthy, America has transformed when Americans have found their real interests at stake. Creeds and beliefs are too easy to reinterpret, rationalize away, or betray. But people respond immediately to their self-interests. War, not moral suasion, ended slavery. The civil rights movement's most effective moments came when boycotts and government requirements threatened the pocketbooks of businesses and institutions who discriminated. It's not beatifically singing songs in "kum-ba-yah" fashion that makes us better, but brave radicals who speak their truth and deploy power in strategic ways.

Brooks is not the only critic upset by an important public figure calling attention to America's failures, both past and present. My local newspaper devoted an entire "Letters to the Editor" section to Kaepernick's critics. Most connected the football player's actions with disrespect for the military--quite a leap.

At the heart of Brooks and others' complaints lies Americans' desperate wish to believe that the story of our uniqueness and exceptionalism is an unqualified truth. We find it profoundly unsettling when someone, especially someone paid to entertain us, reminds us that our most cherished beliefs about ourselves have never reflected the reality of many Americans.

Brooks rightly suggests that people need national myths--they need aspirational ideals. Stories best capture these myths and rituals best transmit them. All peoples have such myths, but these stories obscure as much as they reveal. Even as they bind some groups together, they emphasize the painful exclusion of others. And too many people come to mistake the myth for actual history. Thus we also desperately need myth-busters like Colin Kaepernick to remind us how far we have missed the mark. If Kaepernick has stirred up this much hand-wringing by simply refusing to stand, that myth must be a fragile thing indeed.