SALT LAKE CITY — As the NBA, MLB and other leagues have restarted this summer, so too have debates over whether athletes should kneel during the national anthem.

Some players have cited their faith to justify taking a knee in support of racial equality, while others give the same answer when asked why they’ve chosen to stand.

“I’m just a Christian. I believe I can’t kneel before anything but God,” said San Francisco Giants pitcher Sam Coonrod last month after refusing to kneel with teammates during the anthem.

Religion scholars say they’re unsurprised faith is playing a role in current arguments for and against taking a knee, just as it did a few years ago when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick thrust the practice onto the national stage.

Kneeling is a religiously significant act, and, for some Christians, the flag is almost a religious symbol. It makes sense that faith would shape how players — and sports fans more generally — react to the growing protests, said Ansley L. Quiros, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama.

“Kneeling is a distinctly religious posture. It’s a respectful, submissive posture that we use for prayer mostly,” she said.

San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, left, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. | Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Religious resistance

Long before Kaepernick and other athletes began taking a knee during the national anthem, kneeling played a key role in faith-based protest movements, Quiros said.

During the 1960s, Black students held “kneel-ins” in front of racially segregated churches, urging white worshippers to notice the Black community’s pain and reform their ways.

“There’s a whole tradition of protest built around kneeling,” Quiros said.

Today’s anthem protests aren’t as explicitly religious as gatherings outside churches, but they still have strong ties to personal faith.

In 2017, Eric Reid, who was then a safety for the 49ers, told The New York Times that the Bible inspired him to join his teammate, Kaepernick, on the field.

“My faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I knew I needed to stand up for what is right,” he said.

For athletes like Reid, kneeling during the anthem is a sacred act, Quiros said. By taking a knee, they feel like they’re responding to God’s call to build a better world.

Other players, like Coonrod, share the sense that kneeling is religiously significant, but reject calls to do it in a secular context. They may sympathize with the plight of Black athletes and community members, but feel as if taking a knee during the anthem would be insulting to God, Quiros said.

“There is a robust religious cohort who have said ... they will only bend their knee to God, not to a secular nation,” she said.

Still others object to kneeling because their faith affects how they respond to America’s critics, said Sam Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma. If you believe your country is favored by God, you struggle to understand calls for change.

Some Christians “paint the nation’s history with a kind of virtuous brush,” he said.

Perry and other scholars refer to these believers as “Christian nationalists,” since their assumptions about the country are deeply tied up with their personal faith. For Christian nationalists, honoring the flag and standing for the national anthem is part of living a life of faith.

“Patriotism and loyalty to the nation becomes synonymous with being a good Christian,” Perry said.

Taking a knee, on the other hand, is viewed as an attack on cherished values, he added.

“If my idea of a good Christian is somebody who loves their country, defends it faithfully and submits to governing authorities, then for you to (kneel) is more than a protest against the nation. It’s also a protest against things that I hold sacred,” Perry said.

San Francisco Giants’ Pablo Sandoval, left, and manager Gabe Kapler, second from left, kneel with others during the national anthem before an exhibition baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in San Francisco, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. | Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Enduring controversy

Christian nationalism and concerns about kneeling in secular contexts help explain why religious leaders have emerged as prominent critics of Kaepernick and the athletes following in his footsteps this summer. Pastors have taken to the pulpit, to TV and to Twitter to decry what they see as an unchristian act.

There is a “way to protest social injustice without disrespecting our country,” the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who leads an evangelical Christian megachurch in Texas, said in 2017.

Surveys have shown that Christians, in general, are less supportive of athletes taking a knee during the national anthem than other Americans.

In 2018, just 14% of white evangelical Protestants and 30% of white mainline Protestants approve of the practice, compared to 63% of religiously unaffiliated adults and 47% of Americans overall, according to Pew Research Center data provided to the Deseret News.

Pew also found a gap in support between people who attend church weekly and those who spend less time in their pew. Around one-third of members of the former group (36%) supported players kneeling as a form of protest, compared to 51% of people who attend church less than weekly, researchers reported.

In the two years since Pew’s survey was fielded, taking a knee as a form of protest has become much more common and, according to recent research, more widely accepted.

But religion experts don’t expect faith-fueled criticism of the practice to go away any time soon.

Instead, the surrounding debates will likely become even more heated, as athletes like Coonrod, who cite their faith as a reason to keep standing, become the exception and not the rule, said the Rev. Joe Carter, executive pastor at McLean Bible Church in Arlington, Virginia.

“I can respect the decision to kneel, but now it seems like it’s almost expected,” he said.

Christians, and all Americans, need to grant athletes the freedom to make their own decision, the Rev. Carter added.

“If you’re doing it because everybody is doing it, it’s lost its meaning,” he said.