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Assuming the center

Harrison Butker refused to accept progressivism as the default operating system for society

Harrison Butker celebrates during an NFL playoff football game on Jan. 23, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel

Assuming the center
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Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s commencement speech at small Benedictine College in Kansas is the latest opportunity for us to see what it means to live as a Christian in this Brave New Negative World. More importantly, his speech and the reaction to it clarify a fundamental truth that must work its way deep into our bones and our communities.

Butker’s speech provoked a strong reaction from a variety of sources. An opinion writer at USA Today called the speech “scary,” saying, “We should take every opportunity to push back against this type of extremist, Neanderthalic view of the world.” A former Kansas City commissioner insisted that “Harrison Butker does not represent Kansas City.” The National Football League, which apparently can’t be troubled to condemn players who use drugs and rape women, felt compelled to clarify that the kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs does not, in fact, speak for the entire league, which remains “steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”

What provoked this sort of swift reaction? Not Butker’s advocacy for the Traditional Catholic Mass, nor his condemnation of compromised and cowardly priests of the Church of Nice. No, what drew the condemnation of journalists, reporters, B-list celebrities, and the NFL were four basic elements, highlighted in every story about the speech:

  • His condemnation of abortion (along with IVF and surrogacy).
  • His insistence that gay pride is a deadly sin, despite our culture’s celebration of it.
  • His exhortation to men that they should not be ashamed of their masculinity but instead resist cultural emasculation.
  • His encouragement to women, based on his marriage to his wife Isabelle, to aspire to the vocation of wife, mother, and homemaker.

It was the last comment in particular that seemed to evoke the most ire.

Now, of course, Butker’s comments are simply standard Christian teaching, shared by both Catholics and conservative Protestants, and we should be encouraged by the fact that sales of his jersey seem to have spiked in light of the controversy.

However, I’d suggest that the reaction to Butker wasn’t simply about what he said, but how he said it. Put simply, he assumed the center. To assume the center is to speak and act as though what you are saying and doing is true, good, and normal. It’s to reject sheepish hedging and qualifications and to speak plainly about reality.

The truths Butker proclaimed are not only controversial among the media; a number of them would be controversial in many evangelical colleges and churches.

When Butker speaks as though the majority of the women in the audience are “most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world,” he is assuming the center. When he asserts as a basic fact that men “set the tone in culture,” he is assuming the center. When he casually condemns every form of LGBTQ Pride in passing, he is assuming the center. He’s not arguing for these positions; he’s exhorting from them. Rather than treating these basic facts of reality as up-for-grabs, he assumes them, celebrates them, and commends them. In fact, what many seem to have found offensive about his remarks is that he described his own marriage and his wife’s decision to prioritize her home as a good one and commended it to the young ladies in the audience as a model to imitate. “Be like Isabelle.”

In light of this, the critical reaction to his speech from the media, celebrities, and the NFL is an obvious attempt to reassert a different center, what I’ve elsewhere called “the progressive gaze.” Christians who live beneath the progressive gaze treat progressive ideology as the default operating system for society and orient themselves accordingly, tepidly suggesting Christian-ish positions with tiptoeing qualifications. The progressive gaze is a crucial tool in keeping conservative Christians in line, and thus, it’s necessary to shore it up when a prominent person (such as a Super Bowl winning athlete) violates the progressive code. The goal in such moments is not merely to rebuke the wanderer, but more importantly to send a message to others: “This sort of view is unacceptable; it’s beyond the pale. Get back in your defensive crouch.”

This then is the crucial truth for us: we must assume the center. More than that, we must continue to assume the center in the face of the inevitable hostile reaction. No need to lash out, blow up, or back down. Just calmly and cheerfully continue to testify to reality and encourage others to live in light of God’s works and God’s word.

And it’s crucial that we do so, because the truths Butker proclaimed are not only controversial among the media; a number of them would be controversial in many evangelical colleges and churches. In fact, here is an experiment that Christian pastors, teachers, and leaders ought to try. Take the four controversial truths from his speech and exhort your church, school, or ministry accordingly, using your own words. What sort of reaction do you get?

And so take a lesson from the kicker. Assume the center. Abortion is an abomination, especially when given cover by professing Christians. Pride is a deadly sin, and the month devoted to it is very, very gay. Men do in fact set the tone for culture, and must embrace their masculinity to do hard things for the glory of God. And as for women? Embrace the high calling of wife and mother. Laugh out loud at the mockers who demean baby-making and homemaking.

Christ is Lord.

Joe Rigney

Joe Rigney serves as Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of six books including: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013) and Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Crossway, 2023).

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