The US mix of patriotism and right-wing Christianity is toxic and hateful. We can – and must – do better
The Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, is here, and I must admit that I’m not good at performing patriotism. Indeed, I’m critical of many, probably most, expressions of it. It’s hard not to be these days.
After all, when Democratic members of the House of Representatives gather to sing ‘God Bless America’ on the steps of the Capitol, hours after the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, all anyone who cares about women’s equality and the human right to bodily autonomy can do is blink in bewilderment at their utter tone-deafness.
Vice called the display “the worst possible version of the band that kept playing as the Titanic sank”. The action was intended as a celebration of the passage of a minimal, bipartisan bill on gun regulation that the major media outlets are hailing – optimistically and arguably hyperbolically – as “the first major federal gun safety legislation” since 1994. But the timing and the optics were terrible.
And that gun legislation doesn’t actually ban any specific weapons. It provides $750m of funding for state crisis intervention and ‘red flag’ programmes, and also closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole”, so that now anyone convicted of domestic violence – not just spouses and ex-spouses – will be prevented from buying guns.
Conviction is a rather high bar, of course, and by the time a conviction comes, it may be too late. There have been 21 mass shootings in the US since 24 June, when the new gun legislation was passed, bringing the total number of mass shootings so far this year to a staggering 303. With that in mind, and with no Democratic plan in sight to stop the illegitimate Supreme Court’s assault on the rights of women, LGBTQ individuals and minorities, it’s hard to find much to celebrate on 4 July this year.
Patriotism and religion: an unholy mix
Growing up, I loved singing patriotic songs. Indeed, both my family’s religion and our country’s political establishment gave me many rousing songs to belt out, which I did with childish glee. I come from a musical family, and we often sang together on car rides.
There were enough religious references in the patriotic songs, and so much nationalism at both church and my Christian school, that I suppose as a small child it was all of a piece to me whether we were singing ‘America (My Country ’Tis of Thee)’ or ‘I’m in the Lord’s Army’ – a creepy fundamentalist Sunday-school song that was a staple of my childhood churches.
As I’ve mentioned before, the talent shows of the late 1980s and early 1990s at my school in Indianapolis (Heritage Christian School) ended with an audience singalong of Lee Greenwood’s ultra-cringeworthy country music hit, ‘God Bless the USA’.
At the time, I happily belted out the words: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” My mother and many other adults impressed upon me that we were living in ‘the best country in the world’, and I lacked the life experience to doubt them. We supposedly had the best religion too, the only one whose founder ‘came back from the dead’, and the only ‘true’ path to God – and those who failed to accept it would deservedly burn in hell.
As a young child, of course – living in a right-wing Christian environment, with limited exposure to the outside world – I had nothing to compare American ‘freedom’ to. And no way of knowing that both our jingoism and our Christian supremacism were corrosive to democracy and functional pluralism at home and to peaceful coexistence with other countries.
It was the tail end of the Cold War and while I wasn’t told a great deal about the Soviet Union, I knew that it was ‘godless’ and that this ‘godlessness’ had something to do with why it was also ‘totalitarian’. ‘They’ were communists, but ‘we’ were free because we believed in Jesus and an America that was subject to his authority.
After the turn of the millennium, when I was living and teaching in Russia , a Russian woman of a certain age waxed nostalgic about how, in the Brezhnev era, “we were living in the best country in the world.” The irony was not lost on me.
By then I had also gotten to know some Germans, who thought it was not only gauche but also dangerous to institutionalise practices such as pledges to national flags and to insist that one’s country was the best in the world. I realised they were quite right. I also realised that the dark trajectories both post-Soviet Russia and the post-Cold War US are following exhibit many striking parallels.
Loving the potential version of America
Do I love my country? These days, I can’t claim to know what such a massive abstraction as ‘love of country’ means. I sometimes feel intense anger at the state of my country, and I despise what it has become – even while I am filled with admiration for those who show kindness and grace in extremely difficult circumstances, and for those survivors and activists who are fighting a rearguard battle against ascendant Christian nationalist theocracy.
If love is the opposite of indifference, then I suppose I love America – or at least certain aspects of the country. Of what it could be, if we could establish a proper truth and reconciliation commission; pay reparations for race-based chattel slavery and other human rights abuses; hold our war criminals accountable, especially if they served in high positions such as secretary of state or president; and work through a final Reconstruction, not settling for the half-assed, short-lived version we got after the American Civil War.
I love democratic and diverse America. I feel frustration at the out-of-touch Democratic gerontocracy that refuses to face hard realities about the fundamental brokenness of American politics. And I hate neo-Confederate America, which is currently winning the struggle for the country’s future.
There are liberals and Leftists who advocate the reclaiming of patriotic language and symbols from the Right. I wish them well, but given the complexities and contradictions of my own feelings toward my country and my evangelical upbringing, I can’t really participate in their project.
Performative patriotism is never going to be my strong suit, but to all you Americans of conscience out there, I wish you a relaxing Fourth of July and the strength to fight on.
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