The Superbowl ad sponsored by Jeep© and featuring Bruce Springsteen has generated thousands of words of commentary in its wake. Some have applauded it as a signpost on the path toward national reunion in the United States. Many have rightly pointed to its affinities with and symbolization of “Christian Nationalism.” The use of an overtly Christian worship space with a cross and heart nailed to a map of the United States is a pretty clear deployment of the iconography of Christian Nationalism.
The critiques are merited and well-taken. My question is this. How did the writers, producers, and owners of this ad miss the obvious subtext? Was it a case of creative tunnel vision, of being so excited about the “trees” of the ad that those responsible missed the “forest” of deeper meaning? I wish it would be that simple and naïve, but I don’t think so.
It’s not that garden variety Christian Nationalism was slipped in under the radar in some insidious plot. Rather, the ideology of Christian Nationalism has been so taken for granted in the United States for so long that it is simply part of the expected background. The innovation is not that someone slipped in a narrow set of symbols to trumpet White Nationalist Cultural Christian Republicans. The novelty is that any white people noticed and complained.
This brings me to my Throwback Thursday book for this week. I want to lift up The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall. I have read and reread this book so many times that my highlighting has underlining, and my underlining has highlighting – all surrounded by marginal notes and questions in various colors of ink.
In this book Hall continues his project, begun in 1979 in Lighten Our Darkness, to uncover and describe an “indigenous theology of the cross” for Christians in North America. The book is a summary companion to his three-volume work on “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” The chapters were originally lectures delivered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2002. They have that snappy and immediate character of oral presentation and Hall’s passion for the topic.
In this post, I want to focus on the unifying theme of the book and of Hall’s work. I think his work is one resource in understanding why the “Middle” Superbowl ad could slide so easily into mainstream awareness with nothing more than an approving smile and a small tear in our eyes. Christian Nationalism is, I would propose, nothing more or less than a militant expression of the dominant and underlying cultural framework for white Americans on this continent since the first colonialists set foot on its shores. No great revelation, but there it is.
The ideological heart of the North American project is cultural, political, economic, military, and ideological triumphalism. It has gone by several names over the centuries – the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, American Exceptionalism, The Christian Century, Make America Great Again. In all these expressions there is the toxic combination of white male supremacy, Christian supersessionism and triumphalism, and western colonizing imperialism.
If one benefits from the privileges of that wicked cocktail (as I do), life is good indeed. If one lives outside that system, the consequences can be fatal. Hall writes, “the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes possibly the single most insidious cause of global peril” (page 4). Before we recoil in disbelief, let us recall the role of the West in nuclear proliferation, climate change, debt colonization, proxy wars, covert assassinations, and global white supremacy. I’m sorry, Bruce, but that’s what the “Middle” looks like if you’re a person who lives on the Edge.
Western (primarily Calvinist Protestant) Christianity has served as the underlying ideological framework for the “Middle.” We live in a time when that ideology is being identified, outed, and challenged. That’s absolutely necessary for the long-term credibility, health, and even survival of Christianity in the West. “In short,” Hall writes, “it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world of today and tomorrow as a force for life and not death” (page 5).
What the “Middle” really did was to center those systems which are killing us. We saw a lone, isolated, individual man in his pickup truck in the wide-open spaces. All that was missing from the image was the gun rack in the window and steel testicles hanging from the trailer hitch.
“Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck,” writes Ijeoma Iluo in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy–to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo,” she observes. “It may not stop until it has destroyed everything” (page 45).
The chapel at the heart of this triumphalist universe is not the home of an existing flesh and blood congregation but is a geographic landmark – the center of “everything.” It is not, however, even the center of the whole United States but rather only of the “lower 48.” So, it does not take into account people of color in Alaska and Hawaii, much less those in Puerto Rico or Guam. But then, why should it? And why bother with some messy and cantankerous congregation? After all, the American Middle is an ideal and ideology, not an actual community. What is to be centered is not an existing land but rather a conquering culture.
One of my points is that the creators, writers, producers, sponsors (and actor) may have missed the problem because triumphalist Christianity (in its most visible incarnation as Christian nationalism) is not a “bug” in the system. It is the system itself. And that is the problem. “So long as Christian faith is unable to distinguish itself at the level of foundational belief from the Western imperial peoples with which it has been inextricably linked,” Hall writes, “its actions and ethical claims will be ambiguous, even when they are inspired by apparently Christian motives” (page 4).
One would think that Hall had seen the “Middle” ad as he was writing his book. Of course, it antedates the commercial by twenty years. The ad is beautifully constructed and filmed. It hits all the right emotional buttons. There are values which one could admire – unity, empathy, compassion, community. But these values are so diluted by and polluted with the centering of white, male, evangelical, American Christianity, and so associated with the imperialist, colonialist, supremacist ideology of the West that the good stuff is drowning in the powers of death.
No matter how well-intentioned the ad might have been (for the sake of construing my neighbor’s actions in the kindest possible way), its actual message was counterproductive and contradictory at best. The ad’s association with the dominant ideology (which is, after the Ideology of Domination) conditions every element of the overt communication. That Ideology of Domination is readily associated with numerous causes and perspectives that reflect the Middle and reject the Edges.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez addresses this association at length in her award-winning book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I quote her at length:
Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. (page 4).
This triumphalist ideology is so tightly stitched into most of the American Christian fabric that one hardly notices it any longer. And removing that lining from the American Christian garment is and will be difficult and painful.
I would plead, at least, that those of us who are heirs of the “theology of the cross” (aka historic Lutherans) might become familiar with what Hall and his colleagues describe as the “thin tradition.” It was Jurgen Moltmann who noted that this theology was known by at least some Christians but never much loved. After all, who wants to be part of a movement that embraces the sin and suffering, the despair and death, the frailties and failings of human beings – embraces all that with self-giving love and a trust that God works through our brokenness to give real life?
Obviously, not many –not even many Lutherans. “Historical Christianity – Christendom – has steadfastly avoided the theologia crucis because such a theology could only call into question the whole imperialistic bent of Christendom,” Hall writes. As long as triumphalist, imperialist, colonialist white Western Christianity was calling the shots, there was no need to change or even notice. Now is a time, Hall suggests, for a profound reconsideration.
“But now the possibility of such a reconsideration has become a grave necessity for there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven,” Hall concludes, “by the quest for power and glory, or even for survival” (page 7). Perhaps we Lutherans could become part of the solution rather than part of the problem by embracing this thin and little-loved tradition.
That means losing. That means relinquishing our privileged positions in the middle of everything. That means relinquishing power and property to those who have been cheated and robbed for so long (aka reparations). That means the cross is a real vocation rather than a cultural and political symbol. That means, Hall says, “the only way of saying yes to life in such a context is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective no. The theology of the cross is for Christians,” he asserts, “the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.”
Sorry, Boss. The cross in the middle of everything isn’t in Kansas. It’s on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the hearts of people who love, and in the heart of the Creator of all.