I grimaced when I came across our vice president’s “#Winning” tweet in response to the National Football League team owners’ declaration that players must either stand respectfully during the pre-game national anthem or remain in the locker room until this brief exercise in patriotism has ended.
Winning? You call that winning, Mr. Pence?
But in one sense, the VP is right. There are indeed winners and losers — both momentarily and long-term — as a result of the NFL decision. The short-term winners are that group of Americans who would like to alter the truly radical nature of the social/governmental experiment we call the United States of America, willingly dismissing the revolutionary principles on which this great experiment is based.
Long-term, we’re all losers.
In short, autocratic, dictatorial, tyrannical, despotic, authoritarian, anti-constitutional ideology has won, while government of the people, by the people and for the people — believers in the First Amendment, in other words — has lost.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I’m an inveterate protester. I’ve marched, I’ve waved banners, I’ve stood silently in vigils, and I’ve vociferously railed against injustice over many years and in many locations. Moreover, I expect to continue doing so as long as mind and body permit — and as long as ongoing injustice necessitates such a response.
I view such actions as the greatest homage I can pay to my religious tradition, to self-evident universal morality and to the spirit and wisdom of our nation’s founders. I engage in such protest because I see it as a patriotic duty and a constitutionally highlighted and protected way to right wrongs.
The framers of the Bill of Rights weren’t idly philosophizing when they declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Those visionaries had observed the devastating result when religion and government get into bed together. They’d seen the impact when full and free expression is suppressed. They knew what government is like when there’s no free press to call out excesses and demand accountability. They’d experienced what it’s like when people aren’t free to assemble and when there’s no mechanism for redress of grievance caused by a government run amok.
They were determined that the new nation they were establishing would be radically different from the failed approaches that had long been tried and always found wanting.
As part of full disclosure, I acknowledge that not every onlooker would applaud every time, place or manner in which I’ve protested. And I admit that I’ve at times not agreed with the time, place or manner in which others have protested. But that’s the beautiful reality of true freedom. That’s why the First Amendment exists.
Commenting on flag burning — seen by many Americans as one of the most offensive forms of protest — the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told CNN in 2012: “If I were king, I would not allow people to go around burning the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged ― and it is addressed in particular to speech critical of the government. That was the main kind of speech that tyrants would seek to suppress.”
So, much as he opposed every aspect of flag burning, Scalia said that seeking to disallow it “dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered.”
When our government’s leaders view it as “winning” because they’ve succeeded in bullying the NFL owners into prohibiting players from “taking a knee” during the national anthem as a form of protest against a very real problem that deserves to be protested, it’s high time for a trip back to the classroom for some remedial history and civics lessons.
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider, one of The Three Wise Guys on the radio program “Friends Talking Faith,” is chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.