It’s no accident that this new generation of American national populists looks to a time when America was better. During few instances in the history of mankind has a confluence of institutions come together with such force as in post-WWII America.
GIs returned, buoyed by the pride of defeating evil in the world. They made babies and industries; they sterilized myths about the ideals they fought for. The middle class expanded along with waistlines and wallets. They built malls and suburbs and mega-churches and gas-guzzling automobiles. Americans raced across the continent to sightsee, they spread across the globe to protect democracy and they zoomed into space. They built a binary world: America and everybody else.
Within America’s own borders, there was little room for dissent as the broad ideological middle—at least among that empowered swath of Christian, white, straight men who spoke for it—represented the nuanced differences between America’s political parties. Powerful institutions grew along bipartisan lines to strengthen that middle—America’s core—even as the economic, cultural, and military power of that core pushed outward, imperially, around the world. Americans were concerned with promoting internal homogeneity—the melting pot myth—against the foreign ideological forces that would undermine it.
Two great institutions, one rooted in faith and the other decidedly secular, coalesced to reify America’s internal homogeneity. Church attendance reached its zenith and professional American football expanded. Sunday mornings in the 1950s were spent in celebration of God; Sunday afternoons became celebrations of the most amazing specimens of the human form that America’s god had created.
American churches produced Martin Luther King, American football created Jim Brown. Even as we melted into a pot of hyper-idealized homogeneity, the mettles of those intent on identity shined through our cold-warrior alloy. This Sunday combination was also the flashpoint for our national zeal toward equality for women and people of color (and fledglingly, “homosexuals”). Even as Sundays marched toward their zenith in the American consciousness, even as we celebrated our celebration of man, nation, and God, we were faced with humanity, assaults on patriotism, and the academic, “death of god.”
We moved together, with Sundays in mind, toward a new understanding of our national identity. We moved toward this present.
What we have produced today in America reaches across political divisions to something far more fundamental: we have a Sunday problem. It started a few decades back, when we decided that we needed to shop en masse on Sundays. So we had to build malls and shopping centers and supermarkets. We had to work to chase rising costs of living that the American dream yielded. Mothers were sent to work to make ends meet, children moved away to college or war, restfulness became anathema to Americanism. Six day workweeks in an industrial society grew to seven day workweeks for the burgeoning service sector. Even if time for church attendance suffered—America’s god could be with them always, even at work, they argued—Americans still had three months of secular Sunday football and its heroes to bind them.
From success, naturally, came the leisure time for reflection. Americans looked around to see that they comprised a salad bowl (better yet, “Stars and Stripes”) and not a melting pot, after all. Universities, Hollywood, and government made their own secularized, seven-day-a-week heroes. Rightly, people of color, women, and LGBTQ communities glommed onto anti-war-pro-love injections into Sundays. America was strong and strengthened by the rising up of new voices and ideas.
Church attendance steadily declined, displaced by secular and technological gods, but America still had NFL as a bastion—if not repository—of enduring American values. America had a common lexicon, a little something for everybody: patriotism, rules, entertainment, spirit, and sport. Americans were proud to come together, regardless of creed or color or politics or (dare I say) sexuality.
And then Colin Kaepernick fulfilled the promise of what NFL was destined to become, a safe place where all people could be their part of the Stars and Stripes at the same time that they dive into the last molten pot of Americanness. Kaepernick could be Jim Brown and MLK and Harvey Milk and Ella Baker and also Joe Montana and JFK and Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan: an All-American Everyman who could kneel—a Sunday tradition long before football—before America when merely standing wasn’t enough to honor all Americans.
And a rabble, roused by a pot-stirring populist who had never respected Sunday’s institutions, set out to destroy the last greatest-generation’s American legacy. We have a Sunday problem: the last spiritual-secular piece of glue that we had—16 weeks a year that were strong enough to bind us for the other 36—is under assault.
We have a Sunday problem and we better fix it before it’s an every-day problem.
We have a Sunday problem and it isn’t Colin Kaepernick, it’s that we don’t have enough Colin Kaepernicks.
We have a Sunday problem, and it’s that America has turned its back on football; toward a nasty strain of selfish, narcissistic, ideologically and spiritually bankrupt populism and toward a time that was never this great.