The #TakeAKnee movement is only superficially about race, class, or the effrontery of well-remunerated football players. The reason why it provokes such passions is because it’s really about religion. Namely, the American civil religion: its rituals, its iconography, and especially who is or isn’t allowed to influence them.
The basic mistake that affirmative atheists of the Richard Dawkins / Sam Harris variety make is that they think the driver of religion is its intellectual content. Let the Catholic church make claims about the body and blood of Christ and “No, no,” they’ll say, “you’re doing it wrong. Remember Copernicus, remember Galileo, that so-called blood is still chemically indistinguishable from wine, etc.”. But religion isn’t about what it says; it’s a mechanism for forming and maintaining identity. No two religions make exactly the same claims about humanity, God or gods, or the nature of existence; but they are as one in providing their adherents a way to understand who they are. On the one hand, think of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland bitterly divided from one another, no matter that they don’t look any different. On the other, think of Malcolm X returning from Mecca with a new understanding after meeting blond, blue-eyed fellow Muslims for the first time.
The American civil religion is no different. The USA has its own Last Supper, its own communion of saints and martyrs, its version of the Rapture, and its master narrative to which it requires that all others be subordinate. But the long-simmering conflict over the American identity is now surging toward a boiling point, as control of the narrative slips ever further from those who have long held it. (And to hold something is to deny it to others; that’s the definition of property.)
More than fifty years after the March on Washington, there are still those who feel the need to rise up and demand that the nation “live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” In response, there are those who say: “No, no, you’re doing it wrong. Asians learned to fit in; you need to learn to fit in too. Fix the way you talk. Act respectable.” And, unspoken but clear: “Stop making me feel threatened by you and your demands.”
It’s not going to stop. African Americans, and other minorities as well, are part of America and have been from the beginning. They and their experience are part of the substance of the nation — just as they are, not as scolds and remonstrants would have them be. What they want is for that fact to be recognized.