Make America grating again? That Donald Trump rally and those old American worship wars

Hang in there with me for a minute or two, because I want to connect a few dots before we jump into troubled waters defined by the all-powerful words "Donald Trump."

A long time ago, an Episcopal bishop from the American South said something about his own flock that I thought was funny, but also insightful. When talking about issues linked to evangelism and winning converts, he said: "Episcopalians will do anything for God, as long as it's not too TACKY."

When he said the word "tacky," he added as much neo-British, aristocratic flair as possible. In other words, he was saying that some believers get very upset about religious activities that they see as beneath their perceived social status.

That brings me to this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) and to the opening of this week's On Religion column that served as the hook for my latest chat with host Todd Wilken.

Let me ask a question that I did not have room for in the actual column that went out on the wires. Consider the lyrics of the songs featured in the following two events, one in England and the other in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Which song does more to mix the worlds of church and state, the sacred and the political?

First, there is this familiar hymn, No. 578 in the Hymns Ancient and Modern volumes found in Church of England pews.

Sing along! The first verse will do:

God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen!
Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen.

Now, let's try that new anthem used during the recent patriotic rite -- the "Celebrate Freedom Rally" -- staged in Washington.

In this case we had better look at all the lyrics, care of an ABC News report on this rather symbolic event:

Make America great again
Make America great again
Lift the torch of freedom all across the land
Step into the future joining hand in hand
And make America great again
Yes make America great again.
Americans from ev’ry corner of this blessed land
Come together with one voice
Help us take a stand
Following the vision to make her proud and grand
And make America great again
Make America great again
Like the mighty eagle that is rising on the wind
Soaring t’ward our destiny
Hearts and voices blend
With a mighty melody oh let the song begin
And make America great again
Make America great again
Each and every state
Make America great again
Make America great again

Other than the reference to America being a "blessed land," where is the theological content in this song?

Thus, that question once again: "Which song does more to mix the worlds of church and state, the sacred and the political?"

Yes, I hear you thinking: But, but, but ... In one song we are talking about Great Britain and THE QUEEN, with all of her dignity and, well, class.

That's completely different than that, that, that TACKY patriotic song sung by a bunch of Baptists from Texas that is based on the campaign slogan of, you know, DONALD TRUMP. Besides, everyone knows what that whole First Baptist Church of Dallas church-state festival was really saying. As the Rev. Robert Jeffress said during his time at that D.C. podium:

"God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump," shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. "Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in."

If you want to read about the story of the "Make America Great Again" song, read this piece that ran in The New York Times: "Trump Supporters Have a New Anthem, and It Came From Texas."

As a former Southern Baptist preacher's kid from Texas, who now teaches several months a year in New York City, let me note that it is probably not a good thing when the great Gray Lady says a piece of music came from Texas (unless we are talking about Willie Nelson). That is kind of the elite journalism equivalent of, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

Nevertheless, this is an interesting feature with lots of details:

The song, as performed in concert, was short and simple: a mix of piety and patriotism that did not explicitly mention religion or government. But it repeated Mr. Trump’s most well-known campaign line, “Make America great again,” nine times, and some critics called it propaganda.

And then there is this:

The original composition had verses that were left out of the July performance, said the song’s composer, Gary Moore, a former minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Dallas who now works at a baptist church in Houston.
Mr. Moore, 73, said he was surprised to see the song shared twice by the president on social media. He first composed it shortly after the November election, but he said the words “make America great again” were not only a reference to Mr. Trump.
They were also a tribute to the founding fathers’ respect for freedom of speech and freedom of religion, he said. “I think that’s what made our country great to begin with,” he said. “And I think we have to work to make it great every morning.”

Now, my column discusses the fact that many people online confused the content of the Washington, D.C., rally for veterans with that of the First Baptist Church of Dallas "Freedom Sunday" worship service, with all of its indoor fireworks, flag-waving and patriotic music.

However, Jeffress later stressed that it was crucial that "Make America Great Again" was not performed in that Sunday worship service, as some kind of pseudo-praise song.

This brings us to the heart of the Crossroads podcast discussion, which focuses on a chunk of my On Religion column built on an interview with culture scholar Gene Edward Veith. He argued that when Christians began shouting "Idolatry!" about these First Baptist, Dallas, events, they were not just talking about Trump and politics.

No, something else was involved, said Veith. Something linked to church history and also to a kind of class warfare, expressed in music and radically different forms of liturgy:

... (i)t's significant that many of the online arguments focused on questions about authentic worship and what could be called "fake worship." This echoed decades of "worship wars" debates between advocates of popular, entertaining forms of "seeker-friendly" services and those who want to defend traditional, even ancient, forms of worship, said Veith.
"On one side, you have people who believe that church leaders can pretty much do whatever they want while trying to appeal to the culture around them," he said. "It's like they are creating an entirely new, rival liturgy that competes with what Christians -- including other Protestants -- have considered 'worship' through the ages."
So while it's easy to see political tensions in this media storm linked to President Trump, said Veith, "this story also seems to have poured gasoline on the flames of the old worship wars. … That may be why some people used the word 'idolatry' to describe these wave-the-flags rallies."

Think about it.

Oh, and mixing in Trump-mania into the news mix clearly didn't help.

Enjoy the podcast.

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