Born Again American?
Born Again American is a new project by Norman Lear that has debuted just in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the USA. Yes, that Norman Lear: liberal TV mogul of the ’60s and ’70s (responsible for such socially conscious comedies as All in the Family; Maude; The Jeffersons; & Sanford and Son among others) who decided to fight the influence of the Religious Right by forming People for the American Way.
In this latest project, Lear has teamed up with singer/songwriter Keith Carradine and Director Mark Johnson to create a song, video, and website that promotes a “liberal patriotism” that encourages people to put the common good before narrow self intest, to become involved in community and national service, and to hold government officials responsible for working for the common good. The song (see the lyrics here) espouses economic populism (chastising both big business and government for the destruction of the working class and middle class) and a spirit of unity across religious and racial lines. The website connects people with opportunities to serve and to get involved in holding government officials accountable.
The song and concept are patriotic in the best senses of that term: not militaristic jingoism that puts down other nations or divides the country into “real” and “fake” America, but eliciting pride in the country’s ideals AT THEIR BEST. UPDATE: I want to make it clear that I am not against patriotism per se. It is natural for people everywhere to want to love their country, celebrate its ideals, and push it to live up to those ideals, purging it of its faults and historical sins. As this article shows, the Right is in for a surprise since Obama’s election has led to an increase of non-jingoistic patriotism, despite all their efforts to portray him as a friend of terrorists and those of us who voted for him as haters of America. The right kind of patriotism can help us get through hard times as we tackle enormous difficulties–just as militaristic, world hating, America-0nly forms of patriotism divided and destroyed us for 7 years following 9/11/01. So, I welcome the right kind of patriotic renewal and want to share in it.
But there is also much civil religion in “Born Again American,” and this makes me nervous. Civil religion easily devolves into national idolatry. It seems strange that Lear, who has been such a relentless critic of the civil religion of the Right, should now espouse a liberal version of the same.
I am uncomfortable with lyrics that quickly link “my Bible and the Bill of Rights” (a lyric that seems at odds with the religious diversity shown in the video–a Muslim cleric singing next to a female Jewish cantor, several choirs, Christian clergy from different traditions)–even though I have long contended that the deeper roots of the human rights tradition are biblical rather than just springing up full-blown from the Enlightenment. And, while I am a major proponent of interfaith dialogue (necessary for any peacemaking in today’s world), I don’t want the basis of such dialogue to be a common loyalty to the nation-state that transcends individual faith loyalties. That would make the nation-state our real god (an idol by any other name).
But I may be jumping at shadows. Most of the prophetic forms of social change in this nation had SOME civil religious dimensions to them, from the Abolitionists to the first wave (19th C) of feminists to the civil rights movement. It IS possible to promote a rebirth of the right kind of patriotism, with spiritual dimensions, without losing the possibility of prophetic critique of the nation, right? And that is the point of this project.
The song, video, and website are hopeful–in place of a national despair or cynicism. Further, it specifically recognizes that the changes needed in this nation at this moment of crisis will not be made solely by the new presidennt, nor even soley by government. It is a ringing call to personal and communal responsibility–of the kind that most people expected after 9/11 when our government, instead, told us to fight terrorism simply by going along with whatever illegal and disastrous foreign military adventures it planned and, at home, to “go shopping.” I signed up to do my part.
But this born-again liberal Christian remains uncomfortable with being a “born again American.” Is this just Lee Greenwood’s horrid “God Bless the USA” in liberal form–or am I being too cynical? Check out the website, etc. and then give me your feedback on these tricky questions.
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