The NFL Is a Fundamentalist Church. And the Anthem Is Its Worship Song | Sojourners

The NFL Is a Fundamentalist Church. And the Anthem Is Its Worship Song

In May, a meeting of National Football League team owners unanimously passed a new policy stipulating that unless a player elects to stay in the locker room when the National Anthem is played, they will be required to show “respect” for the flag and our country by standing. Teams will be fined by the NFL if any player acts otherwise. 

The policy is a direct response to the roiling controversy generated by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to quietly kneel during the anthem as a symbol of protest against police brutality and discriminatory policies toward black Americans. Much has already been written about how the new policy is a racist stranglehold on free speech expressions, how it cheapens patriotism by making it compulsory, how it is an attempt to shore up declining viewers and fans. All of those things and more are true, and the debates they raise are vital.

For me, as a pastor and grassroots organizer, this is an issue that falls deeply in line with what it means to be spiritual, how we are called to congregate, and why those choices matter. As Belmont religion professor David Dark writes, “Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious.” We are all religious, in active and passive ways. 

The United States — the idea of it — is a religion with its own Testament and history. Established within this testament and history are four dominant, intersecting spiritualities that order life within the cult of American belonging: White Supremacy, Patriarchy, Militarism, and Consumer-Capitalism. I believe history and our current lived realities bear this out conclusively.

There are verses in our national Testament that give lip service to life-giving ways of ordering ourselves —“created equal, with certain inalienable rights” — but these phrases arerepeatedly subsumed by selective readings of those with power, who prefer to keep their power centered at the expense of others. Power, wealth, and violence are used to codify these versions of our national Testament so that freedom, wealth, and equality are the purviews of only a few (i.e., cis-hetero white men) — not all. This is U.S. history.

The NFL is one of the most prominent denominations of the United States’ religion. It is a fundamentalist church. It is rooted in a creed-based belief system. Like many churches and denominations, it is not democratic. It is authoritarian and misogynistic. It is legalistic, but selectively so. (As the NFL’s code of conduct has made clear, smoking weed is worse than beating women.)

In terms of how the NFL “takes care of its flock,” negating the body is more important than taking care of it — witness the NFL’s dithering on the known debilitating physical trauma manifest in CTE. At the end of the day, you are either in or out, on terms dictated by the keepers of the creed.

As educator and activist Bree Newsome says, it’s “key to recognize the NFL as a mammoth institution of cultural influence in the USA. The NFL is a major platform for military advertisement and nationalist propaganda, a modern gladiator gamest hat is used to reinforce American identity via a sporting event.” 

The four national spiritualities in U.S. power structures at large are also foundation stones for the NFL. A few quick, simple examples:

  1. White Supremacy: 97 percent of NFL team owners are white.
  2. Patriarchy: More than 85 percent of NFL teams are owned or co-owned by men.
  3. Militarism: The NFL has been paid millions of dollars by the Department of Defense over the last decade to enact “patriotic displays” before and during games. Having teams on the sidelines for the national anthem only began after 2009.
  4. Consumer-Capitalism: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell states that his goal is for the NFL to have annual revenue of $25 billion by 2027, an increase of $1 billion a year. (Revenue has tripled to $14 billion a year since Goodell took over as commissioner.)

The NFL holds Sunday church services for half the year, with various revivals during the other six months. In various intersecting ways, those four spiritualities are integrated as liturgy during every service.

And the national anthem is its worship song.

If your hands aren’t in the air, or you aren’t singing and clapping along, then you are insufficiently filled with the spirit. There’s something wrong with you, because there can’t be something wrong with the “gods.” You need to be pressured and prayed over, or excommunicated.

For the NFL, like many churches in this parable, the invitation to join or “try it out” is colorful and inviting. They want your dollars and they want you in the door, but eventually you have to sign on the dotted line. And don't challenge a tenet of the creed, because that is a challenge to the undergirding spirituality. The fear — and fundamentalism is always rooted in fear — is that to question one “truth” is a slippery slope that threatens the entire enterprise.

As a result, someone like Colin Kaepernick needs “conversion therapy” at best, and is condemned to “hell” at worst. That is, the main driving questions were how to get him to stand and “respect” the true theology, and blacklisting him, respectively. Here’s Bree again:

Living, active faith is dynamically alive. It risks by leaning into new questions. It listens to the world and the cries of injustice generated by police brutality against black and brown Americans, and it interrogates and expresses the response and purposes of the Living God. It brings those questions and responses to church — it commissions one to kneel in lament and prophetic advocacy.

If you feel called to church: May it be one that subverts these four dominant national spiritualities, not one that subscribes to them. If your denomination or church reinforces these spiritualities, then it is a social club for building American equity, not a church for gospel witness. The way of Jesus is an antidote to each of these spiritualities, and a hitching post for embodying the truth that we belong to each other.

The perpetuation of these four destructive strands of American spirituality is more insidiously subtle than it is explicit. “Fundamentalist church” can be hardcore fire and brimstone. More often, it is a wide swath of churches that simply “go along” with American life and mythos, neglecting to embody risk-taking stakes that might ever challenge the status quo. 

No institutions, religious or civil, are going to be “perfect.” And living in the United States means we will always live in the gray in some way. But life is too short, and church is too optional, not to try harder. Lives — and whether they matter equally — are on the line.