MRBlog | Colin Kaepernick, Religion, and the Academic Think Piece

By L. Benjamin Rolsky

According to various news reports, San Francisco Forty-Niners Quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit during the recitation of the National Anthem as part of the third week of the NFL preseason. He had done so before in previous games, yet in this instance it would become the stuff of religio-political controversy. The reception since has been mixed, with some lifting him up with the likes of Ali and Rosa Parks while others continue to question his racial authenticity. The venues of such work range from magazines to sports talk radio shows to academic blogs dedicated to the dissemination of “think pieces” much like this one. If conservative reaction has beaten the proverbial drum in the name of Reagan’s America, then the liberal defenses of Kaepernick’s actions have responded in antithetical kind through the use of social media such as Facebook and the aforementioned think piece. The confusion and frustration over the content and terms of the debate struck me as a way into a larger conversation about how academic commentary functions in public and for what reason. In short, it must remain, best it can, above the immediate fray. To do otherwise, is to forfeit the very thing that qualifies academics to speak in public in the first place: expertise.

The academic think piece must remain, best it can, above the immediate fray.

Scholar of religion Benjamin Zeller analyzed Kaepernick’s behavior through the theoretical apparatus of sociologist Emile Durkheim in a piece titled, “Why Kaepernick’s Refusal to Stand is an Act of Religious Dissent.” Zeller argued that taking a knee on the sidelines functioned as a form of religious dissent directed towards America’s “civil religion” and displays of the American flag. Through Durkheim, Zeller contended that the American flag serves as a totem, an object that organizes a communal sense of self on behalf of a larger group. “From this perspective,” Zeller argues, “what else is the national anthem but a hymn to the nation, and what else did Kaepernick do but thumb his nose at American civil religion by sitting down in church while the choir sung.” Zeller’s conclusion is that after applying Durkheim’s analysis, we are reminded of the power of American civil religion and its enduring hold on the American populace. This power, however, remains tenuous at best. When Kaepernick was asked later if there were any religious overtones to taking a knee, he responded, “No, there were no religious overtones with that.” At the very least, we have a confusion of terms: those of the academic, and those of the proverbial insider. Who is right? Does it matter? And, most importantly, what role does the academic think piece play in adding to or clarifying this confusion?

Despite the clarity of Zeller’s analysis, its purpose still remained unclear. It didn’t speak to the confusion I often hear on sports talk radio—what did Kaepernick’s exercise of the first amendment have to do with the military and local law enforcement? After listening further, I concluded that his actions had less to do with religious dissent, and more to do with what historian Harry Stout has referred to as “rhetorical worlds.” Since the mid-1960s, a powerful political discourse of conservatism has defined the parameters of public discussions of morality, decency, and patriotism. Part of this conservative strategy has been to link particular arguments together in order to form something of political value. This process began during the 1960s when various conservative senators and presidential candidates began deploying “Law and Order” as both campaign strategy and civic prescription for the nation’s ills. If anything, Kaepernick’s actions demonstrate the extent to which this strategy has worked in the public square, one that uses law enforcement and the military as rhetorical shorthand for patriotism in the name of political expediency. This type of discursive analysis is but one example of how to deploy the academic think piece for purposes both general and specific. If composed, the piece would examine a taken-for-granted cultural object or event, in this case the kneeling of an NFL player, and reveal how its significance takes shape through discourse, public speech, and the close readings of texts. In this case, our task is a deceptively simple one: to elucidate the conditions that have shaped religio-political argumentation into the polarized state that we live with today.

We could also explore how Kaepernick has been marked as a racially complex figure in the public eye. Multiple commentators have equated the actions of Kaepernick to boxer Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. If a historical allusion is necessary, and I’m not necessarily sure it is, then Kaepernick’s stance most closely resembles the actions taken by gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Summer Olympics. During the playing of the National Anthem, each player raised a clenched fist into the air as an act of solidarity with those living under oppression both at home and abroad. Like Kaepernick, each player drew attention to himself based on what he wore. All three players also had their socks and head gestures examined during the singing of anthems and Star Spangled Banners. In particular, Smith and Carlos wore socks with no shoes in honor of those still in the grips of poverty in America’s inner cities.

Functionally speaking, these acts resemble each other in regards to Durkheim’s notion of the flag as totem within the American civil religion. However, once we examine the content of each particular act, Kaepernick’s stand resonates less with an act of religious dissent and more with previous acts of Black Power liberation in the public sphere. His actions have also tapped into the unrest that currently defines much of the conversation surrounding political correctness, Black Lives Matter, and free speech. To render Kaepernick simply as an actor of religious dissent ignores how his kneeling participated in a longer tradition of black community activism that has taken place outside the confines of the Black Church, real or imagined. It also ignores the wider context of athletes who have begun speaking out on behalf of those murdered by an unjust police state. Subsequent academic analysis and commentary have largely supported Kaepernick’s stand through the use of social media and the genre of academic writing known as “the think piece” by equating him to fellow activists of color. This type of academic analysis, however, cannot begin by accepting the suppositions of the subjects under study—no matter how much we might agree with them. This is a much easier task when composing scholarship on subjects we may disagree with politically or socially, but it is even more important to remember when we agree with the movements of justice we support as fellow citizens. In these cases, we write with elucidation in mind, but often also in the spirit of celebration.

Despite the fact that many such pieces investigate relevant subject matter, this type of writing becomes instrumentalized once composed solely in the name of the political or social movement under study. In other words, the social justice content of the think piece overrides its purpose, thus confusing the purpose of the think piece with the content of its subject. As a result, the piece becomes less about the academic analysis and more about echoing the ethical suppositions of the scholarly subjects, in this case, the just character of Kaepernick’s actions. Allusions to Rosa Parks and Muhammed Ali demonstrate perfectly the instrumentalization of history itself in the name of progressive politics. For critical theorist Paul Apostolidis, academics who compose in this manner risk reducing their expertise down to a historically contingent struggle. As such, it can be dismissed out of hand quite easily based simply on its political orientation, explicit or not. “Those who attempt to forge these links of solidarity by generating new and politically consequentially narratives,” Apostolidis argues, “must bear in mind Adorno’s insight that it is precisely the cultural object’s autonomy from the instrumental purposes of specific social or political groups that safeguards the protestative dimensions of its political power.” In this way, academics work against their own critical abilities to comment on the world in generative ways when their faculties serve particular political interests through their writing. To compose a think piece that labels Kaepernick’s actions a form of religious dissent, without tending to or explicating the content of such dissent, is to replicate analyses that assume religiosity on the part of the black freedom fighter in the public square. In other words, the Black Church continues to live on through analyses that privilege justice-oriented content over academic form. Social justice may be a just cause as a form of instrumentlized reason, but it cannot be the predominate impulse that grounds our work in the public square.

There is nothing inherent within the academic profession that qualifies it to speak on behalf of either the marginalized or the wealthy.

By design, the think piece is a convoluted piece of writing. It attempts to bridge the perceived gap between scholarly and popular audiences by writing to neither while writing for both. Indeed, if the academic think piece is to bridge the gap between the academy and the public, then it must be composed with the purpose of elucidation in mind. In an age of the declining significance of authority and expertise in favor of DIY analysis, it makes sense to foreground this academic prowess even when composing the proverbial think piece. Such writing might possess a keen attention to historical context, awareness for the power of language and thought structures, and theoretical dexterity that allows for multiple interpretations. To do otherwise, I fear, is to forfeit any and all subject-related expertise that we have in the name of a cause or political movement. Despite ideas to the contrary, there is nothing inherent within the academic profession that qualifies it to speak on behalf of either the marginalized or the wealthy. “If critical theory is to declare its solidarity with any particular, historically situated struggle,” Apostolidis argues, “it must at the same time resolutely refuse to instrumentalize itself in the service of that struggle entirely.”

This does not mean that scholars can no longer be activists. It also doesn’t mean that critics can’t be caretakers. What it does mean, however, is that the think piece must be composed with a very particular purpose in mind, one that does not simply seek to affirm the politics of its subject. In light of these suggestions, the confusion we encountered initially becomes a bit more accessible than first realized. In particular, it revealed the linguistic constraints operative within a conservative rhetorical world oriented around normative definitions of patriotism and respect for the rule of law. Religious dissent? Perhaps. Protest in the name of black solidarity? Absolutely. If academic commentators are to have something to say to the wider public, it’s probably best to do so as the trained professionals that we are. Otherwise, we run the risk of being misunderstood, or even worse, ignored.


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