Weird America

Weird America
Brian Zahnd

America has always been a weird amalgamation of the disparate — a strange mixture of admirable ambition and appalling hubris, an intoxicating brew of virtue and vice. America can always do things in a big way, but it can’t always make up its mind what it wants to do. It careens between Prohibition and ten thousand craft breweries as just one example of a country always reinventing itself. When you look at America you can see what you want to see because there are so many sides to America — so many contrasting, and often conflicting, personalities.

For multitudes, America has indeed been a New Colossus embracing huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I don’t know the full story of why the Zahnds left Switzerland for America at the end of the nineteenth century, but I know it was to find a better life and, sure enough, we found it — just like millions of other immigrants from the teeming shores of ancient lands. And yet the inspiring story of hopeful immigrants finding a land of opportunity is not the whole story. We must be honest about the fact that this city of refuge is haunted by ghosts of slavery ships and weeping specters on the Trail of Tears. (America is so exceptional that it has twin original sins!)

America the Ambitious set its sights on a continental-sized empire from the outset (from sea to shining sea), and today she’s a behemoth. America is so enormous in every way that it’s not one thing but four things.

America is a nation. In its most basic definition America is a geopolitical nation-state founded in 1776 and now comprised of fifty states.

America is culture. And a global culture it is! I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never left America. As those Irish blokes sing it: “Outside it’s America.”

America is an empire. My working definition of empire is rich powerful nations that believe they have a divine right to rule other nations and a manifest destiny to shape history according to their agenda. This was, in times past, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Spain, England to name a few, and today it’s America’s turn.

America is a religion. This may strike some as provocative, but it’s really just a sober assessment. America is a religion complete with creation myths, founding fathers, canonical texts, sacred sites, hallowed temples, cherished hymns, iconic symbols, liturgical gestures, and holy days. Consider the Apotheosis of Washington painted on the dome of the Capitol rotunda that depicts a deified George Washington ascended to heaven and seated in the place of prominence among the other gods and goddesses. (The risen and ascended Christ is nowhere in sight.) The true object of worship in American religion is America itself — often personified in its presidents and generals.

America the Behemoth is a nation, a culture, an empire, and a religion. As a nation and culture America is a mixed bag, but there is much that is admirable and worth celebrating. There’s an entrepreneurial energy and electric optimism that is distinctly American and this has long been rightly admired by the rest of the world. America has made profound contributions to the arts — especially in the realms of music, literature, and film. America has led the way in scientific advancement and technological development for well over a century. America pioneered the creation of national parks — a concept some have called America’s best idea. (I think they might be right.) And though I do have occasional flights of fancy about living an expat life in Portugal or Spain, there’s really no other place I’d rather live.

I truly do have a sincere and deep appreciation for all that is good in the land of my birth. But I must also insist that America as an empire is dangerous and America as a religion is idolatrous. The current attempt among some to conflate America and Christianity into a common cause is a fool’s errand and a theological heresy that will only end in catastrophe for the church. Christian nationalism is simply nationalism that attempts to co-opt Christ and merge it with the empires of this world. Religious nationalism is syncretism at its most seductive. Of course America is not the first nation to witness a popular push for Christian nationalism. Germany had a particularly bad ending with this dangerous experiment.

Indeed American is many things and there’s an inherent weirdness in America’s many iterations. And so I learn to live with America’s weirdness. Some of the weirdness is enchanting. America sounds like Johnny Cash and Joey Ramone. It looks like Dorothy Day and Marilyn Monroe. America feels like sultry New Orleans and manic New York. It’s as real as the Rocky Mountains and as contrived as Las Vegas. This is the kind of weirdness that makes America an intriguing culture. It’s the kind of weirdness that gives birth to the blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. It gives us Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. Elvis and Dylan.

But when American weirdness takes up imperial aspirations or religious pretentions, that’s when I resist. I’m a Christian after all, and I’ve pledged my allegiance to Jesus Christ. My idea of empire is the kingdom of heaven, and my notion of religion is the Sermon on the Mount. I seek to be a serious Christian embracing the Great Tradition — the faith and practice of the saints for two thousand years. I’m not interested in some goofball Johnny-come-lately, hyper-patriotic, star-spangled parody of Christianity. Surely we all see the “God, Guns, and Trump” kitsch for the religious silliness that it is. It’s one thing to be a little bit weird; it’s another thing to be downright ridiculous.

So there’s a kind of American weirdness that’s endearing and there’s a kind that falls somewhere between silly and insidious. This is the weird American landscape I must navigate. I’m a stranger in a strange land and I need to keep my bearings. I try to do that by “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith,” remembering that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one to come.” (Hebrews 12:2, 13:14) My earliest predecessors in the faith had to navigate their way through weird Rome, and I have to navigate my way through weird America. And we are fast approaching the weirdest time of all as America enters its quadrennial descent into the political madness of electing a president. (Lord, have mercy.)

So in the predictably weird insanity of Election Season I’ve got to try to keep my wits about me. I want to keep my soul unstained and my heart at peace. I go about this mostly through prayer. And when things get really crazy, as I know they will, I’ll try to keep matters in perspective and my heart at peace, and quietly whisper, America is weird, but Jesus is Lord.


P.S. If you’re in need of a 4th of July playlist, here you go.

(The artwork is American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930.)