Thoughts on “We Want America Back”
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I don’t think I’ve ever done so little to start so much of a conversation, and I’ve a good mind to just stay out of it, but of course I won’t. And before going in any further, I want to say (again) how delightful it’s been to be the host of such a civil conversation. I guess it’s a kind of backhanded compliment in a way (”Look, evangelicals can talk about politics without having a bloody brawl!”) but alas evangelicals DO have a bit of difficulty talking about politics without scorching the earth and anyone who they perceive as their enemies. Which makes this conversation all the more noble. I really do think this is a model of discourse and exchange that a whole lot of the world could copy. Thank you. That said, I am going to limit my remarks to southern gospel and politicized lyrics and only touch indirectly on some of the larger political issues circulating around this topic. This blog is about southern gospel, and not contemporary politics, after all.
Perhaps not surprisingly I’ve been thinking a lot and writing some about this topic in my day job, which was the source of the original post in the first place. And/but I’m not entirely sure what I think about it yet. Consider, then, what follows as so many promissary notes toward a more fully formed and thoughtful (as well as thought-out) opinion in the future.
On the one hand, I have no reason to think that Jeff Steele doesn’t believe what he’s writing and singing about when he proclaims himself and other Christians victimized by a pervasive culture of immorality and recklessness. Thus I think we are obliged to take lyrics like these seriously, even though in my own case I find them somewhat crude, more than a little opportunistic, and deeply uncomfortable to listen to. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see any direct evidence that evangelicals suffer as mightily as the lyrics of “We Want America Back” would have us believe.
A song like “We Want America Back” works by encouraging audiences to convince themselves emotionally, in the experience of the music and its polemical, rousing recitation of anti-Christian bias in the world, that evangelicals suffer real pain through symbolic or legal actions. Courts banning the display of the ten commandments in government buildings or prohibiting formally sanctioned prayer in public schools, same-sex marriage and abortion – these are issues about which conservative Christians have strong emotional and political feelings but usually very little at stake personally: few evangelicals are, I would wager, in a position to want or seek an abortion, want or seek to marry someone of the same sex, nor are these same people likely to experience any kind of irreversible pain or suffering from the absence of the ten commandments in a courthouse or public prayer in school. “We Want America Back” – and songs like it – exploits the emotional investment evangelicals have in these issues, whipping up conservative audiences into a good thoroughgoing ideological froth over hot-button issues and then inviting audiences to consider that ideological outrage proof of the purity of their faith.
In some ways, this makes a certain kind of sense. White evangelicals are among the most powerful and coveted bloc of Americans in contemporary politics these days. Most laws and policies that have direct impact on quality of life and ordinary living are written with these peoples’ interest foremost in mind. There just aren’t that many instances in ordinary American life when evangelicals are going to be penalized or forced to suffer severely for their beliefs. And yet evangelical theology is founded in large part on the belief of the centrality of sanctified suffering for Christ and his cause. Thus the primary opportunities for white, middle-class evangelicals in middle and southern America to suffer for Christ are probably going to have to be ideologically, politically, and to some extent, imaginatively, in the kind of constructed crisis of Christianity and culture that a song like “We Want America Back” attempts to call forth lyrically. Christian faith and commitment are affirmed through an intensity of feeling and immensity of affect generated by, say, a concert in which “We Want America Back” is the centerpiece.
In a different context, the literary critic I. A. Richards called this form of religious feeling “emotional belief” – a way of believing that another critic, Robert Milder, has described as “aris[ing] from and fulfill[ing] a psychological need without … making claims on practical behavior.” This is exactly what’s happening, I think, in a song like “We Want America Back.” With apologies to Ruby Thewes, a song like this creates its own emotional weather pattern and then says “aren’t we brave and noble Christians for standing out in the rain.”
I want to be clear that though I am deeply ambivalent about the kind of belief and action in the world that ideological music like this gives rise to, I’m not trying to demean the song. What I’m more interested in as a student of gospel music is the song’s misrepresentation of reality as mainly anti-Christian (that evangelical Christians don’t always get their way is not the same thing as the world being out to get them) and the way that that distortion speaks to the volatility or paradoxes of evangelical identity. The popularity of polemic songs like this suggests that evangelicalism today relies an awfully lot, though not entirely, on narratives of victimization to energize the faithful. It speaks to one important function of southern gospel music in evangelical life, it seems to me, that so many evangelicals find a song like “We Want America Back” an essential distillation of their feelings about their Christianity and the experience of religious living.Email this Post