Sunday was a rough day for the NFL and for football fans.
U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), never one to miss an opportunity to oppose President Trump, made sure to tweet his guidance to the adults of America: “NFL players: You have the right to protest Trump.”
The problem for Sasse is this controversy has nothing to do with anyone’s rights; and even less to do with Trump.
Trump’s battle with the NFL about anthem protests is about what is right, not one’s rights. The whole affair is not about what one can do, but about what one should do.
To start, Trump has made as appropriate an argument as one can make about public displays of disrespect for one’s country. It was entirely based on freedom of association and the free market. Players, as private employees, can protest America by kneeling during the National Anthem. Likewise, owners can, as Trump suggested, say “get that son of a bitch off the field. He’s fired!” Nowhere has Trump argued that it should be against the law to kneel, or that the force of government should be used to make men stand. Instead, the president has argued that economic pressures from a boycott would correct the disrespectful behavior.
Trump’s comments serve an immediate tactical purpose; they follow the same communications strategy Trump has used for years. With every comment by Trump, the elites respond by driving a wedge even deeper between themselves and common Americans. It’s clarifying. This division benefits Trump because it frames the issue in a way that will mobilize voters. Even Rich Lowry and Ben Sasse have started to figure this out.
But what the NeverTrumpers of the world have not grasped is that the battle is not just about tactical gains; it is about something fundamental to our survival as a nation: educating our young people to respect their country.
Just last week, a bunch of 8 year-olds were led to take a knee by a coach in St. Louis. What started as a desperate move by a sub-par player on his way out the door has already transformed into a destructive fad. How long should we expect to have a country if our young people are trained to hate and despise it in this way?
Truth is, if we do not work to instill patriotism and love of country in our children, this country will not last long. People with modern sensibilities may disagree, but the fact remains. A civil religion is not idolatry or empty rituals; it is a necessary component of free, republican life.
In his Lyceum Address, President Lincoln explained civil religion. He said,
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
In his famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, Lincoln used the same religious language for the other end of life. Using the words of our civil religion, he sought to comfort a grieving mother who had lost five sons in the Civil War, praying that she be left with “the solemn pride . . . to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Lincoln understood that preserving our republic requires that citizens be willing to make great sacrifices. This willingness does not come from nothing, but is born from a proper education of children.
Melania Trump echoed this sentiment in a wonderful speech recently at the United Nations. There she said:
If you look at the present state of children in any society, we will see the future that our world can expect tomorrow. Show me your civic lessons of today and I will show you your civic leaders of tomorrow. Show me your history lessons of today and I will show you your political leaders of tomorrow. Show me the loving bonds between your families today and I will show you the patriotism and moral clarity of your nation tomorrow. Our choices on how we raise and educate our children will in fact provide the blueprint for the next generation.
Like Lincoln before, the first lady points to the same connection between morality, patriotism, education, and a free government as extolled in Article III of the Northwest Ordinance.
And President Trump has made it clear that he understands patriotism to be the linchpin of our nation. In nearly every public speech, he echoes what he said in his inaugural address:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
Unity, necessary for the existence of these United States, comes from patriotism. Patriotism, in turn, comes from a proper civic education. This education is the thing at stake in Trump’s battle with the NFL.
How do we know? Trump said so himself when he started this fight in Alabama. Our shared values and our respect for our country, he said, unify us. That is why it is important to call out these destructive protests for what they are. The tragic irony in all of this is that President Trump has correctly identified the one thing—a national unity rooted in real patriotism—that will solve the problems that the original kneeling protest was meant to highlight. The elites, including the “principled conservatives” who oppose Trump, are just too blind to realize it.
The common sense of regular Americans who are capable of ruling themselves is here opposed to the befuddled sense of entitled elites who wish to rule everyone else. Elites think liberty is license and they confuse the issue with talk of rights and the 1st Amendment, as if this is a question of what one is allowed to do. The rest of America understands that liberty requires self-government, and the anthem protest question is about what one ought to do. Trump’s quarrel with the NFL is a necessary fight, not about rights, but about what is right.