The video opens with a God’s-eye-view of an empty road, fields blanketed by snow on either side, steel guitars ringing across a Midwestern landscape. Quick cuts to a Stetson hat in the passenger’s seat of a vehicle and a boot stepping out of a Jeep reinforce the message: you’re in cowboy country, son. Then one of the most iconic voices in American music history intones, “There’s a chapel in Kansas, standing on the exact center of the lower 48. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here . . . in the middle.” The words “the middle” accompany a shot of a cross, laid over an American flag, laid over the shape of the contiguous United States, hanging over the chapel sanctuary.
The Boss’s boss, it seems, is the god of patriotic centrism.
Jeep’s Superbowl ad, featuring Bruce Springsteen’s voice over an array of Christian nationalist imagery, has elicited its share of lively debate. Rev. Phil Woodson’s Twitter thread, in particular, unpacks its not-so-buried allegiance to white Jesus. What strikes me, as a Chinese American observing a groundswell of anti-Asian violence unprecedented in my lifetime, is the way the ad repackages white settler colonialism as something noble, even holy. Indeed, in a month when Red Letter Christians’ theme is “Representation Matters,” I find it remarkable how very much representation of non-white minorities does not matter in Jeep’s pseudo-Christian ode to “the middle.” That sacralized indifference is precisely why people who look like me are getting hurt.
The ad’s obliviousness to non-whites is most evident in its blatant erasure of Native Americans. “The very soil we stand on is common ground,” Springsteen declares in his homily. Over a closeup of his weathered white hands running through soil, the line thus links a white working class rock icon to the romanticized agrarian heartlanders who have come to occupy the United States’ sacred center—by what historical processes, who can say? The state-sponsored extermination of North America’s indigenous tribes, the legacy of which has roiled the NFL itself, certainly has no place here. A glancing shot of a Black woman sitting in a diner reminds us that Black people, too, are at best peripheral to this religion of national greatness.
Furthermore, reflection on the product being sold reminds us that Latinx and Asian people also have been expunged from the meta-narrative that Jeep, via the voice of blue collar America, is trying to tell. Juxtaposed with Springsteen’s dirt-smeared hands, the Jeep is reinvented as the essence of this colonized and converted territory, the means by which all of “us” can arrive at the perfect compromise between “red” and “blue,” “servant” and “citizen,” “freedom” and “fear.” No mention is made of the fact that Jeep vehicles are currently assembled in Brazil, India, Mexico, and China, as well as in the States. The idea of Mexican or Chinese hands crafting this symbol of America’s “common ground” would be blasphemous. They are not part of “us.”
Springsteen’s participation in this ad stands in stark contrast to one of his more affecting meditations on religion, violence, and the American state’s relationship to both. 20 years ago, his song “41 Shots (American Skin)” so riled the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd of its time that the NYPD Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called for boycotts of Springsteen’s shows. His sin? Humanizing Amadou Diallo, the Guinean victim of the titular 41 bullets that NYPD officers emptied into him on February 4, 1999. That song’s religious imagery—“We’re baptized in these waters/And in each other’s blood”—subverts the Jeep ad’s uncritical celebration of civic piety. Instead, the American creed in “41 Shots” is a religion of state sanctioned violence, one that regularly transforms Diallo and other Black victims of police brutality into crucified Christ figures, the price the rest of us are willing to pay for the illusion of a society bound by “law and order.”
That violence, like the gory Roman execution sanitized by the chapel’s pristine cross, does not warrant mention in Jeep’s religious fantasy. Nor do the Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian victims of that violence. There is only a holy lone ranger strolling into his house of worship, representing the American herrenvolk in one righteously buff figure.
At the same time that Springsteen’s Jeep ad was making the rounds, another sort of video was garnering attention. In place of the ad’s music video sheen, these videos featured only surveillance camera graininess. In lieu of a gracefully macho cowboy walking in slow motion, these clips displayed out of focus bodies in sudden, vicious movement. And instead of lovingly framed religious iconography, these videos depicted quotidian urban settings as the backdrop to random acts of violence. Nonetheless, the relationship between these two sets of images is undeniable.
For almost a year now, the Christian nationalists who occupy our halls of power have been directing their righteous fury against the officially designated enemy: China. Mike Pompeo, the most outspoken Evangelical Secretary of State in recent memory, initiated the wave of vitriol by referring to “the China Virus” in a March 7 interview, thereby sparking an 800 percent increase in anti-Chinese rhetoric amongst conservative outlets. Pompeo subsequently undercut his feints at distinguishing between “the Chinese people” and “the Chinese Communist Party” with support for racist conspiracy theories, coupled with continued use of the term “Wuhan virus,” and incessant references to “Communist China,” a right wing tic that conflates the entire country with the Communist party.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted on March 25, 2020, “Do your part to arrest the spread of the China virus. And God bless our brave docs and nurses.” A couple months later, would-be Senator Mark Curran expressed this sanctified Sinophobia as bluntly as possible: “We need to stop letting China toss us around. We’re the greatest country on God’s green earth.”
For Springsteen and Jeep, the “greatest country on God’s green earth” defines itself by a generous spirit of moderation; for Pompeo, Cotton et al, the city on a hill is defined by naked hostility towards its godless enemies. In both variants of Christian nationalism, however, the considerations of non-white, non-Christian Americans are of no account. Both the subliminal and explicit deprecation of such citizens’ concerns, predicated on the dogma that such concerns be left at that Kansan chapel’s door, have created the toxic environment in which an 84-year-old Thai grandfather was murdered in broad daylight.
The national religion commands Asians to sacrifice our own well-being on the altar of unity. This is the result.
The fact that many (not all) of the recent perpetrators of anti-Asian hate were not aggrieved white males is, in some sense, irrelevant. As I have written with Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Dr. Russell Jeung, non-white Americans are far from immune to “Legion,” the spirit of colonialism and fascism. Immersed in an environment that celebrates white strength, white piety, and white prosperity, some small segment of America’s increasingly dispossessed, sick, and unemployed minorities will follow Legion’s call to unleash their justifiable frustration on other vulnerable populations. Sadly, Asian Americans who rely on a racist police force to protect them from hate crimes, indifferent to the way the “model minority” myth has long exacerbated Black people’s pain, only perpetuate obeisance to Legion.
With all due respect to the literal house of worship that stands at the center of the lower 48, we should not be working to preserve a chapel founded on denigrating “the Chinese” as godless, Black Americans as criminal, or Indigenous Americans as non-existent. We should be tearing down that figurative chapel instead, sundering flag from cross once and for all.
To that end, I began circulating last month an open letter condemning the anti-Asian racism of major Christian nationalist politicians and the complicity of their pastoral enablers. Proceeding from the premise that anti-Asian racism obstructs real solutions and therefore immiserates all Americans, the open letter has amassed 400+ signatories from Asian American Christians, Asians of various national and religious backgrounds, and allies from all walks of life. We demand accountability both from the politicians who have created an environment of anti-Asian hostility and the religious institutions that have either implicitly or explicitly sanctioned their behavior. Such demands issue not from hostility towards Christianity itself, but rather from a desire to see Christ’s name dissociated from the xenophobia to which it has been bound.
I invite all to join us in this task. In doing so, I’m reminded of another line from Springsteen’s catalog. On the 1982 song “Nebraska,” Springsteen writes from the perspective of killer Charlie Starkweather. Asked to explain why he murdered the innocent, Starkweather shrugs, “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
Starkweather’s evasion of responsibility haunts me as I consider the church’s response to Christian nationalism’s perversions of our faith. Shall we join Starkweather in resigning ourselves to the meanness of that perversion, or shall we get to work undoing it? Between these two options, there is no middle ground.