A Soundtrack for American History?

Jeff Sharlet’s most recent essay in Harper’s focuses on yet another front in the Religious Right’s strategy for the culture wars (in addition to the courts, the marriage altar, and science classrooms): U.S. history. At stake here is just how we narrate the story of the American experiment. The Right clearly sees the power of story, and Jon Meacham’s protests in American Gospel to the contrary, they remain committed to a story of biblical proportions—a tale of exiles and promised lands, exoduses and deliverance, cities on hills and New Jerusalems. I’m grateful for another one of Jeffrey Sharlet’s entertaining dispatches from the exotic world of Protestant fundamentalism, giving us a glimpse into the curricula of Christian madrasas located in homes throughout the nation.

I do have some minor reservations about Sharlet’s account—in particular, his suggestion that the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper is something of a progenitor of R.J. Rushdoony’s “dominionist” theocratic project. This is mistaken and over-reaching on at least two counts:

First, while Kuyper did articulate a critique of the sacred/secular distinction, particularly as inherited from the Enlightenment, as well as the liberal notion of “neutrality” in a supposedly secular public square, his critique did not entail any pretension to theocracy. This is because of a central theme in his thought: the notion of “sphere sovereignty” which carefully and rigorously distinguished between the proper realms of authority for the state, the church, commerce, and other spheres. One might suggest this is a kind of Dutch rendition of the “wall of separation.”

Second, we can look at Kuyper’s own practice. As prime minister of the Netherlands, Kuyper’s vision translated into a robust pluralism that has never really been entertained in the United States, not even by the left (taken as they are with the benighted notion of a “neutral” public discourse).

But this is perhaps a bit of a marginal skirmish. More importantly, Sharlet’s piece pushed me to a musical meditation: for the past week I’ve been ruminating on Buddy Miller’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side,” on Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer album. (You can listen to Miller’s version here.) Tracking the rhetoric of divine sanction of American conflicts—from Puritan violence against Native Americans up to the nuclear age—Dylan interrogates just the claim made by the Religious Right’s version of history: the persistent refrain of “God on our side.” Stand-alone lyrics don’t do justice to the mournful lament, but the song opens:

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

The refrain continues through the Revolution, Spanish-American war, up through 20th-century conflicts. But just when this starts to sound like an anthem for manifest destiny, the lyrics take a turn, and conclude thus:

In a many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

I think the song should be required listening in 7th grade history classes across the country (one could hope it might be listened to by some home schoolers, too!). Dylan’s and Miller’s is a very different story about God’s role in U.S. history—one with a prophetic heritage.