Statement on Students Kneeling and Praying during the National Anthem
On November 15, 2016, six members of the Covenant College men’s and women’s basketball teams knelt and prayed during the singing of the national anthem before the start of their home basketball games. Not surprisingly, this action has garnered a significant amount of attention, both on the College’s campus and off. Many have asked—among a number of other questions addressed in the FAQs below—what the College’s position on this matter is. The following statement is intended to clarify the College’s position and to provide some rationale for that position.
Covenant College encourages students and fans to stand during the playing of the national anthem. It is for this reason that the College always invites attendees and participants at our home soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball, and baseball games to “rise for our opening prayer and remain standing for the national anthem.” As an institution, we believe that it is appropriate to stand during the anthem as a sign of respect for the ideals the flag is intended to represent, even if one believes that the nation is not living up to all of those ideals. And, while the flag represents more than just the United States Armed Forces, we also believe it is appropriate to stand as an indication of gratitude to the men and women who have served to defend those same ideals.
Scripture is clear that we are to submit to those placed in authority over us (Romans 13:1-7) and are to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:19-26). However, over the course of Christian history there has been disagreement within the church over how participation in patriotic displays fits in relationship to these clear biblical commands. According to a number of ancient sources, both Christian and pagan, many early Christians would not participate in civic rituals, as these activities were regarded as being at odds with Christian commitment—either because they were inherently pagan or because they were seen as placing the state in a position of primacy over Jesus Christ. Over time, perspectives within the church changed on this matter, to the point that today participation in civic rituals is widely accepted within the American church. However, despite this shift in majority view, there have always been Christians who have expressed reservations about participation in patriotic displays, because they have not seen them as commanded by the biblical texts referenced above and they have regarded them as expressions of a measure of devotion to the state nowhere taught in the Word of God.
In light of these biblical and historical realities, the College has never sought to bind the conscience of its students by compelling them to participate in patriotic displays. While, as an institution, we believe it is acceptable, and perhaps even preferable, for Christians to stand for the playing of the national anthem, we recognize that some Christians believe they cannot do so in good conscience. In view of the Reformed Protestant tradition’s commitment to the liberty of conscience, we do not believe we should, by policy, compel compliance with what is, after all, a cultural and not a biblical mandate (see Westminster Confession of Faith XX, ii).
Many veterans, military personnel, military families, and citizens are deeply offended by students kneeling during the national anthem. These students have declared that they “have the utmost respect for the people who have fought for this country in the past, for those that fight for our country in the present, and for those that will continue to fight for the freedoms we will receive in the future…. There is an obvious debt that we owe them.” Nevertheless, the manner in which they have chosen to express their concern over racial injustice is offensive to many people who love our country. As a Christ-centered educational institution, the College is committed to helping these students—and all of our students—think through the impact of their actions, consider biblical principles for Christian public action, and develop effective means for addressing, and calling others to address, social structures and practices that have been warped by sin.
As an institution rooted firmly in the tradition of Christian liberal arts education, the College does not shy away from addressing difficult issues. Ours is a world that is marred by sin, and a significant part of our calling as a Christian academic community is to equip our students with a biblical frame of reference with which to engage the world in all of its glory and brokenness. We seek to help students grapple with and develop godly responses to the problems that beset our society. Doing so is not always easy, and can expose tensions, but it is nevertheless characteristic of a robust Christian education.
Finally, the students who knelt and prayed during the national anthem have stated that they did so to raise awareness of ongoing and unaddressed racial injustice in our country. Their concerns—though not necessarily their tactics—align with the spirit of actions recently taken by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Covenant College's sponsoring denomination. In the summer of 2016, the PCA’s General Assembly passed by overwhelming majority an overture (Overture 43) entitled “Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advance of the Gospel.” In that overture, the PCA confessed and repented of “corporate and historical” racial sins and “failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures in accordance with what the Gospel requires.” Furthermore, the denomination recommitted itself to “the Gospel task of racial reconciliation, diligently seeking effective courses of action to further that goal, with humility, sincerity, and zeal, for the glory of God and the furtherance of the Gospel.” In keeping with the actions of the PCA, the College is committed to pursuing the Gospel task of racial reconciliation and to helping students work through how best to pursue that same task.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Does Covenant College encourage kneeling during the national anthem?
No. Covenant College encourages standing during the national anthem, as evidenced by the public address announcer asking those present to “rise for our opening prayer and remain standing for the national anthem” before home soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball, and baseball games.
- Is the student decision to kneel in prayer a protest against the U.S. Armed Forces?
No. The students who knelt have stated that they are grateful for those who have served in the armed forces and did not intend to offend them.
- Is the student decision to kneel in prayer connected to the Black Lives Matter movement?
No. The students have stated: “We are not supporting the organized movement Black Lives Matter. We agree with the ideas expressed in the name but we disagree with some of the particular positions of the movement, which come into direct conflict with our own Christian beliefs.”
- Was this action a response to the recent national election?
No. This action was not connected to the presidential campaign or results of the election. Students discussed their interest in taking this action and had conversations with coaches and other staff members at the College in October, before the election took place.
- Why are students kneeling in prayer?
The students who knelt are concerned about ongoing and unaddressed racial injustice in our country, and are seeking to raise awareness of these problems. In their view, our country is failing in significant ways to live up to one of the most cherished ideals represented by the flag: justice for all.
- Are these students taking any positive action to address the issues about which they have concern? Are they doing anything besides kneeling?
Yes, these students are taking action beyond simply kneeling and praying. One expression of this work is the newly-formed McRae-Zellner Project—an initiative that involves both students who knelt and many who did not. Named after the first African-American woman and man to graduate from Covenant College, the project’s mission is to raise awareness of the particular issues faced by the African-American community in America today, to provide opportunities for constructive conversations on race issues around campus, and to pursue acts of community service in the Chattanooga area, including providing tutoring services in underprivileged schools.
- Will student athletes be disciplined for kneeling during the national anthem? Why or why not?
No, students will not be disciplined for kneeling during the national anthem. At Covenant, we seek to disciple and guide our students to mature Christian thinking and behavior, while also entrusting them to make decisions as young adults. While the College does discipline students for clear violations of standards of conduct, standing during the national anthem is regarded as a voluntary act, not a compulsory one.
- How many men and women knelt in prayer during the national anthem during the November 15 basketball games? What did the other players do during the national anthem?
Four men (two African-American, one Anglo-American, and one Asian-American) and two women (one African-American and one Anglo-American) knelt in prayer during the national anthem. The other team members stood facing the flag during the anthem and placed their left hand on the shoulder of the teammate in front of them or locked arms with the teammate next to them.
- Does the College actively support veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces?
The College has a history of supporting veterans and their families. Many Covenant employees, along with many Covenant alumni, have served in or are active members of the armed forces. This year, 15 students are being supported by the GI Bill. Covenant is a faithful participant in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides veterans and children of veterans with additional funds toward their Covenant education. The College has also made charitable contributions to organizations that support veterans and their families.
- Is the College doing anything in response to these student actions?
Yes. The College continues to disciple the students who knelt, bringing people from both inside and outside the immediate College community to engage in conversation with these students about their chosen course of action and their larger concerns. In addition, the College continues to support the work of students who feel called to address matters of social injustice from a biblical perspective. The College is planning a series of forums and panel discussions for the spring semester of 2017 to take up topics around themes such as Christians and the state, Christians and political protest, biblical foundations and parameters for addressing racial injustice, and how Christians should handle disagreement within the body of Christ.