Are You Blasting Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Today?

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Here is Slate writer Ruth Graham:

Graham is correct.  The song is really dark.  Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago for Real Clear Politics after former Texas governor Rick Perry used this song at a campaign rally:

If the last several GOP presidential primaries are any indication, nearly every candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2016 will claim to be a follower of Ronald Reagan.

Rick Perry, should he decide to run, will be one of those candidates. The former Texas governor has even decided to use one of Reagan’s old campaign theme songs.

Last Thursday, at an event in Washington D.C., Perry walked onto the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1984 single, “Born in the U.S.A.” About thirty years ago this song peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts and it continues to be a quintessential American anthem and a crowd favorite at Springsteen concerts.

Like Reagan in 1984, Rick Perry and his staff seem to have no clue about the song’s meaning. Anyone who listens carefully to the lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A.” will quickly realize that there is little about the song that reflects conservative values.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is about veterans living in the wake of Vietnam War. The first verse describes a veteran who can’t find a job when he returns home. He is rejected by potential employers so many times that he ends up like a “dog who has been beat too much” until he “spends half his life just covering up.”

Springsteen also sings about a fictional “brother” who was killed while fighting the Vietcong. He’s dead, but they’re “still there,” while the woman who he loved is left only with a picture.

Like most Springsteen songs, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a lament for the American working class. It reminds us that Vietnam was a “rich man’s war” and a “poor man’s fight.” This is a protest song. It is a song of tragedy. It tells stories of young men who sacrificed themselves for their country and got nothing in return.

On Sept. 19, 1984, a few months before his overwhelming victory over Walter Mondale, Reagan made a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, a rural and hardscrabble community with a large Italian-American population. It was a perfect place to test out his new theme song, “Born in the U.S.A.”

After the song blared over the loudspeakers, Reagan stepped up to the podium and said: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

On one level, Reagan interpreted Springsteen correctly. A lot of his music is about the way ordinary Americans yearn to live the American Dream. This theme in Springsteen’s music is what attracted conservative columnist George Will to bring The Boss’s songs to the attention of the Reagan re-election team in the first place.

But “Born in the U.S.A.” is also a song about what Springsteen has recently described as the large gap between American reality and the American Dream. The song is more about the tragic side of American life than the sunny pursuits of happiness that politicians, especially conservative politicians, like to talk about on the campaign trail.

“Born in the U.S.A.,” with Max Weinberg’s drum blasts and Springsteen’s rugged voice, is a musical assault on the purveyors of the American dream. It reminds us that for many people in American history the dream has been more like an illusion.

Springsteen heard about the way Reagan was using his song and he lashed back. Two days later, while playing a concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen paused from the music to say few words of introduction for “Johnny 99,” a song about an unemployed New Jersey autoworker. “Johnny 99” is a cut from Nebraska, one of Springsteen’s darker albums. It is filled with songs that are about brokenness, hardship and death.

Before he played “Johnny 99” that night, Springsteen referenced Reagan’s Hammonton speech: “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to that one.”

The chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” may send chills of inspiration up the spines of Rick Perry supporters, but the former Texas governor should probably think twice about using it in any more appearances. 

 

Should This Painting be at the Smithsonian?

An artist is suing the Smithsonian because the esteemed museum will not display her painting of Donald Trump.  Here is the painting:

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And here is a taste of an article at The Intellectualist:

When Raven asked the National Portrait Gallery to display his painting to coincide with Trump’s 2017 inauguration, the gallery director, Kim Sajet, told him that the painting was “too political,” “too big,” and not very good.

“The last thing she said to me was ‘it’s no good,’” Raven said.

Raven then filed a lawsuit against the Smithsonian, claiming the museum had infringed upon his First Amendment rights and his Fifth Amendment right to due process. He insists that the art world “is controlled by very strong political ideologies on the left.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with James Davis

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James Davis is Professor of Musicology and Chair of the Music History Area at the School of Music at the State University of New York at Fredonia. This interview is based on his new book, Maryland, My Maryland: Music and Patriotism during the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

JF: What caused you to write Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Curiosity, at first. For years I had wondered how a song dedicated to a state that never joined the Confederacy could be considered – then and now – a Confederate anthem. Once I began digging deeper, I realized that “Maryland, My Maryland” was in many ways the ideal case study of the life cycle of a war song. As I pulled together the story, I also came to realize how changing concepts of patriotism were entwined with the song’s use and reception. By this point I thought I had a book-length study on my hands, and, to my good fortune, the University of Nebraska Press agreed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Maryland, My Maryland demonstrates how popular music simultaneously reflects and shapes events both large and small; that an anthem is an indispensable tool for gauging the depth and definition of patriotism; and that musical taste often triumphs over social class, politics, religion, and other social elements

JF: Why do we need to read Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Maryland, My Maryland serves as reminder that there is a human factor behind everything we study about the Civil War. Aesthetics, or music taste and popularity, may seem tangential to great battles or ground-breaking legislation, but these are the issues that speak to the emotional foundation upon which everything else resides. By singing a song a person can express something that is impossible to convey in any other way. If we truly hope to understand what that person was experiencing, we should do our best to know that song and to understand what that performance meant.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

JD: I moved into American history about 3 years after graduate school. My dissertation dealt with the intersection of philosophy and music theory – a very esoteric subject. After publishing a few articles, I realized that I had little desire to pursue this line. I spent about 2 years doing a great deal of reading and thinking, and finally decided to dive into work that combined three of my passions – musicology, American history, and military studies. A friend of mine mentioned having seen a collection of letters from a Civil War band leader in an archive, so I ordered a microfilm, began reading, and I was hooked.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I have a few small Civil War projects underway, such as veterans and late-century music criticism, humor and music, and musical nostalgia. There is also a book possibility that would examine the notion of “proximity” (geographic, temporal, emotional) and musical meaning during the war. However, having spent over 20 years on the Civil War, I am anxious to expand my horizons. I hope to investigate similar topics (musical nationalism and patriotism, military music) in the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. I am also fascinated by bandsmen stationed in western forts from 1870-1900.

JF: Thanks, James!

The Constitution as a “cudgel with which to attack their enemies”

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In The Atlantic‘s ongoing series on the state of American democracy, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that partisanship has “turned Americans against one another–and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.”  They call for a “constitutional patriotism.”  Here is a taste:

America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.

There are lessons here for both the left and the right. The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that, because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow?

For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. They were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what would become the most inclusive form of governance in world history.

Read the entire piece here.

What Does Colin Kaepernick and Nike Have to Do With a Christian College?

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The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that the College of the Ozarks will no longer use Nike athletic gear after the sports apparel company revealed an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick.  Here is a taste:

Nike’s new ad campaign includes a close-up photo of Kaepernick’s face with the sentence, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

As a result, the College of the Ozarks, a small Christian institution in rural Missouri, announced that it would get rid of all athletic uniforms that had been purchased from Nike and anything else that displays the Nike “swoosh” logo, according to a news release.

The college revised its sports contracts in October 2017, adding a stipulation that all participating coaches and players “show respect for the American flag and national anthem,” the release said.

“If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them,” the college’s president, Jerry C. Davis, said in a written statement. “We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform.”

Marci Linson, vice president for patriotic activities and dean of admissions, said that “Nike is free to campaign as it sees fit, as the college is free, and honor-bound by its mission and goals, to ensure that it respects our country and those who truly served and sacrificed.”

First, what does it say about the College of the Ozarks that it has a “vice-president for patriotic activities?”

This is not the first time the College of Ozarks has made news for its God and country convictions.   In October 2017, we wrote about the college’s course on “patriotic education and fitness.”  We also wrote about the school’s refusal to engage in intercollegiate athletics against schools that “disrespect the flag.”  David Barton, the Christian nationalist and GOP activist who uses the past to promote his agenda, has described College of the Ozarks as a “safe college.”

I am curious how the  “God and country” program at the College of the Ozarks affects faculty members.  Is a faculty member’s job in jeopardy if they support, based on Christian conviction, “taking a knee” at a football game?  What if a professor argues that patriotism should not play such a strong role at a Christian college?

Fox News Radio Host: “Apparently… There are Some So-Called Evangelical Christians Who Have a Problem With Patriotic Church Services”

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Listen to Todd Starnes of Fox News and court evangelical Robert Jeffress talk about patriotic worship services.

A preview:

  • Starnes takes a shot at the critics of patriot worship services by calling them “so-called evangelical Christians.”
  • They criticize Michelle Boorstein’s recent Washington Post piece on patriotic sermons.
  • They take some shots at The Gospel Coalition, a group of theologically conservative evangelical Calvinists.  Starnes makes the Gospel Coalition sound like they are some kind of left-wing progressive group.
  • They call Christianity Today and The Washington Post “fake news.”
  • They continue to peddle the false notion that America was founded as a Christian nation.

To be fair, Jeffress does make a good point about anti-Trump evangelicals when he says “they can’t reconcile [President Trump] with their faith.”

Does anyone else see a realignment taking place in American evangelicalism?

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

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Ben Railton has a nice reflection on Frederick Douglass’s famous speech.  Here is a taste of his post at American Studies blog:

I’ve written many times, in this space and elsewhere, about the inspiring history of Elizabeth Freeman, Quock Walker, and their Revolutionary-era peers and allies. Freeman, Walker, their fellow Massachusetts slaves, and the abolitionist activists with whom they worked used the language and ideas of the Declaration of Independence and 1780 Massachusetts Constitution in support of their anti-slavery petitions and court cases, and in so doing contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more inspiring application of our national ideals, or of a more compelling example of my argument (made in the second hyperlinked piece above) that black history is American history. Yet at the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to claim that Freeman’s and Walker’s cases were representative ones, either in their era or at any time in the two and a half centuries of American slavery; nor I would I want to use Freeman’s and Walker’s successful legal actions as evidence that the Declaration’s “All men are created equal” sentiment did not in a slaveholding nation include a central strain of hypocrisy.

If I ever need reminding of that foundational American hypocrisy, I can turn to one of our most fiery texts: Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass’s speech is long and multi-layered, and I don’t want to reduce its historical and social visions to any one moment; but I would argue that it builds with particular power to this passage, one of the most trenchant in American oration and writing: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”

Read the entire post here.

Did Your Church Have Patriotic Worship on Sunday?

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Did your church have a patriotic service yesterday?  Did you sing any patriotic songs?  My church did not.  I came in a few minutes late, but I don’t think the 4th of July was ever mentioned.  This does not mean that the leaders of my church are unpatriotic.  It means that they probably realize it is a bad idea to mix civil religion in the form of patriotic celebrations with Christian worship.

Over at The Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein has a nice piece on the debate over whether to bring patriotism into church.  The piece quotes my recent History News Network piece on the topic.

Here is a taste:

In 2016, LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 61 percent of Protestant pastors agreed that it was “important for July Fourth worship services to incorporate patriotic elements to celebrate America. Fifty-three percent of pastors in that survey agreed that their congregation “sometimes seems to love America more than God.”

The context of 2018 may be new — rapidly changing religious and racial demographics in the United States, growing secularism, the explosion of Web-based faith — but debates about how churches handle July 4 began surfacing early in American history.

Catherine Brekus, a Harvard University historian of U.S. religion, noted that in the early 1800s, Methodists opposed Fourth of July celebrations on the grounds that they were not Christian. By the 1850s in Cleveland, Protestant ministers “usually took the lead in organizing 4th of July activities, and speeches were given in churches. After the 1850’s, ministers still gave benedictions, but the ceremonies were usually held outdoors, and commercial leaders and businesses were prominently involved,” she wrote in an email, noting historical accounts.

John Fea, a U.S. historian from Messiah College who just published a book about Christian nationalism, wrote in June for the History News Network about why activities such as July 4 services are being debated anew:

“Ever since the founding of the republic, a significant number of Americans have supposed that the United States is exceptional because it has a special place in God’s unfolding plan for the world. Since the early 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by Puritans, evangelicals have relished their perceived status as God’s new Israel — His chosen people. America, they argued, is in a covenant relationship with God,” he wrote. Today, the anxiety about how to be Christian and American is high because history is being reexamined.

“The United States Constitution never mentions God or Christianity but does forbid religious tests for office. The First Amendment rejects a state-sponsored church and celebrates the free-exercise of religion. This is hardly the kind of stuff by which Christian nations are made.”

Read the entire piece here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress’s “Freedom Sunday” is Coming

It’s that time of year again.  Time for Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and a prominent court evangelical, to hold his annual “Freedom Sunday.”  This year’s celebration of God and country will take place on June 24.  Last year’s celebration got a lot of attention.

Robert Wilonsky writes about the city of Dallas for the Dallas Morning News.  He took the above picture while sitting in traffic.  And then he wrote an article about Jeffress at the Morning News.  Here is a taste:

The newly planted billboard touts a “Freedom Sunday” worship service June 24 at the downtown church and hosted by the man who serves as one of President Donald Trump’s main spiritual advisers — a job that appears to be part propagandistpart contortionist. According to a video Jeffress prepared for Freedom Sunday, there will be “inspiring patriotic worship” and “a salute to our armed forces,” followed by the Fox News’ commentator’s “special message” advertised on that billboard. 

There will be indoor fireworks, too, which is not how they concluded the Last Supper. And first-time visitors to First Baptist will receive a copy of Jeffress’ book Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, a grim piece of work about “the coming collapse of our nation,” according to Mike Huckabee’s foreword.

Consider this your semi-regular reminder that Jeffress, Fox News’ go-to religious authority, is among this city’s most divisive voices. Nothing he says shocks me anymore. I mean, this is a preacher — a follower of Christ — who actually said, “America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background.” 

Which is the opposite of Hebrews 13:1. And, I think, the rest of the Bible. 

Read the rest here.

“[Fea finds] any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.”

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I am patriotic!  I really am!  I own flags and I even have a  “Patriot’s Bible!”

Check out Jon Ward‘s recent piece at Yahoo News on court evangelical Eric Metaxas.  In addition to Ward’s profile, he also posted a series of e-mails he exchanged with Metaxas.  Those e-mails include Metaxas’s responses to several of Ward’s questions.

Here is one of the questions Ward posted to Metaxas:

Have you engaged much with John Fea’s critique of your book? He makes a persuasive argument that you have airbrushed the American founding into an airbrushed version that exaggerates the role of Christianity as the sole source of virtue (not one of several), that exaggerates the extent to which there was religious liberty at the founding (Seamus Hasson’s “Right to Be Wrong” is best I’ve read on this topic), and treats the American experiment as more of a miracle detached from anything before it than it was. Fea writes that America built on the democratic principles at play in British life, which is something of a subtle point, but an interesting one which tempers exuberance over American exceptionalism as some kind of divinely ordered miracle. He also believes you give the Great Awakening too much credit for how it influenced American politics. The greater point is that Fea thinks you make a common mistake of many evangelicals, that of confusing America with the kingdom of God. This is a complex and nuanced point. A firm rootedness in one’s citizenship in heaven should not produce passivity or fatalism about one’s community or nation here on earth. But the critique of culture warriors often is that they cling too tightly to worldly outcomes because the two categories (kingdom of God and America) have become almost unintelligibly mixed or combined. Do you think you have done this in any way?

And here is Metaxas’s response to Ward:

Mr. Fea’s critiques have not only not persuaded me, they have helped me see more clearly why what I said in my book If You Can Keep It is necessary to communicate to as many Americans as possible at this time in history. If I could give a copy of that book to every American — or at least to every young American — I would do so. Mr. Fea’s misunderstanding on this central issue — one that particularly seems to plague academics — is at the heart of our problems as a culture and as a church.

To mix these very separate categories is a great sin indeed, but such sins must be in the eyes of the beholder. I am afraid Mr. Fea has committed the opposite sin in being so enamored of a certain anti-populist and anti-American narrative — which view is so trendy in the Academy that he should be concerned about having accepted it himself — that he falls into the category of those who find any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.

I am glad Metaxas is familiar with my critique of his book If You Can Keep It and he no longer just sees me as “some guy.”  You can read my critical posts here and decide for yourself.  As you will see from those posts, I don’t think it is a good idea to give a copy of this book to every American. You can also read my 2016 piece on Metaxas at Religion News Service.  I still stand by both pieces.

I also wrote this on August 5, 2016. Here is a taste:

…I get fired up about bad history.  This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.  I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.

I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands.  I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it.  Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”

Now back to the Olympics. I am thinking about staying up late tonight to cheer on the U.S men’s curling team.   I wonder if this counts as “healthy patriotism.” 🙂

Quote of the Day

Let him begin by treating the Patriotism of the Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important.  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the state at which the religion becomes merely a part of the “cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce…Once [he’s] made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing 

–Screwtape to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996; originally published 1942), 34.

College of the Ozarks Offers a Class on “Patriotic Education and Fitness”

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Everyone is making a big deal about a Christian college offering this course.  Here is a taste of the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s piece:

The small Christian institution in rural Missouri made headlines last month for refusing to play sports against any team whose members kneel during the performance of the national anthem. Now it’s getting attention for requiring all of its freshmen to take a new course, “Patriotic Education and Fitness.”

“The college attracts a lot of publicity because it’s so very different,” said Jerry C. Davis, who is in his 30th year as president of the 1,500-student college. “And I think it has lately because it’s willing to make a public statement about what it represents and what it thinks is best for the culture and the country.”

In requiring the new course, the college is signaling that patriotism is largely synonymous with the military, to judge from its materials. The required course debuted last year as a retooled version of previous courses in physical education and patriotism — this time, with a more-intentional emphasis on the military.

“We’ve always had some aspect of the military. Usually we try to cover rank structure and how the military is kind of organized,” said the college’s director of patriotic activities, Bryan Cizek. “We’re just getting a lot more intentional with the military curriculum.”

Students in the course will “learn map reading, land navigation, rifle marksmanship, rope systems and knots, and rappelling,” a news release says. They will also study the formation of American government and politics, military customs, task organization and courtesies, and flag protocol and procedures.

Read the entire piece here.

Is this course any different than ROTC?  Wheaton College, the flagship liberal arts college of American evangelicalism, has had ROTC for years.  So does evangelical Houghton College. So does the University of Notre Dame.  Jesuit schools like Loyola (MD), Marquette, Santa Clara, Xavier, Scranton, and Boston College have it.

Or perhaps the program at the College of the Ozarks is something different.  Whatever the case, the refusal to play sports against teams that kneel seems odd.

Big Patriotism vs. Small Patriotism

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I resonated with Bonnie Kristian‘s attempt to understand American patriotism in the context of this whole NFL-American flag mess.  She uses Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to describe a “small patriotism”–something akin to hobbit Frodo’s love of the Shire.

Here is a taste:

Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

Small patriotism loves one’s neighborhood for one’s home, and one’s city because it holds the neighborhood, and one’s state, region, and country as the city’s host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism “produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” he noted, for “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.

Read the entire piece here.

I think Kristian’s “small patriotism” is what we have witnessed recently in places like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean in the wake of hurricane season.  It is the kind of home-love that we see in Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership.  It is the kind of “faithful presence” that James Davison Hunter writes about in To Change the World.  It is the kind of patriotism that I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Here is a small taste:

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that ‘no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet.’ Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet.  He was a patriot in the classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land (p.10).

Catholics and Patriotic Worship

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Apparently it is not just evangelicals who have a problem with patriotic worship services.  This weekend a priest was quite surprised when a patriotic song was played during the communion mediation at mass.

Here is a taste of Father James Martin’s America magazine piece “Should we sing patriotic songs at Mass?  Probably not”:

Yesterday I heard an excellent homily at Mass. The Gospel reading (Mt 10:37-42) had Jesus telling his followers, with the uncompromising language he often used, that nothing comes before God. God comes first, and everything else is secondary—even the love for a mother and a father. In a line that undoubtedly shocked listeners in first-century Palestine and still has the power to shock, he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

As the homilist told the congregation this Sunday, everything must be subordinated to God. Agreed.

That is why it was so jarring to hear the Communion meditation just a few minutes later. It was a song, which I had not heard before, in which the singer pledged her heart to America. Not to Jesus but to the United States of America.

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. It was the Sunday before the Fourth of July, and I have come to expect patriotic songs in Catholic churches in the United States, around that time of year, as well as around Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

But it was hard not to think: Isn’t this the opposite of what Jesus said in the Gospel? Surely we should all be good Americans and love and honor our country. But especially during the Mass, shouldn’t our hearts be pledged to something, or someone else?

Read the rest here.

Brother Jonathan

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Before Uncle Sam became famous, the United States had to “endure” the antics of Brother Jonathan.  Who was this guy?  Adee Braun explains at Atlas Obscura.

Here is a taste:

He was ill-mannered and ill-spoken—a boor, a braggart, a ruffian, a bigot, a hick, and a trickster. His name was Brother Jonathan.

Today he is all but forgotten—eclipsed by his upstanding uncle, Sam. But after the Revolutionary War, Brother Jonathan was the personification of the newly independent American people: clever, courageous, not all that sophisticated and proud of it. He was the everyman incarnate. It was the everyman who had led America to victory. And now America looked to the everyman to lead them out from the bloated shadow of Great Britain.

During the nation’s first hundred years, America tried on many characters in search of the perfect fit for its new independent status. There was the feminine Columbia, the indigenous bald eagle, the stoic Lady Liberty, and the bumbling Yankee Doodle. Out of this personification soup, only a few emerged that had some staying power.

Many of these national stereotypes were depicted in popular ballads and stage comedies before America had even achieved its independence; Yankee Doodle was among them. He was originally a British invention—a caricature of a naive, upstart American colonist who was created as a foil for John Bull: the imposing personification of England. Though he never completely faded out of existence, after the Revolutionary War Yankee Doodle was mostly assimilated into another stage character: Brother Jonathan.

Read the rest here.

A Contrarian’s View of Patriotic Worship Services

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Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?

I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend.  I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience.  Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry.  Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.

If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.

On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.

I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State.  Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:

We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however.  Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag).  Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation.  To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message.  Second, idolatry becomes a real problem.  Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst. 

Don’t believe me?  Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately.  Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.”  I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ.  Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.”  While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal.  In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God.  Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.

Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it?  The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach.  It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots).  This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over.  In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity.  Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion.  Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.  Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.

Read the entire post here.