On Sunday, Americans of every race, color and creed were unified around their TV sets by the desire to find one tangible reason to hate Tom Brady and, failing that, enjoy some Super Bowl commercials. Among those commercials was this hoo-rah patriotic Jeep ad starring no less an American icon than Bruce Springsteen. It’s a coup for Jeep. This is the first ad Springsteen’s done in his 48-year career.
“There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the Lower 48,” Springsteen intones in his slightly wispy tenor with just a hint of gravel. “It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here — in the middle.”
That chapel has a star-spangled map with a cross on top of it, as the ad shows. And in case that was a little too subtle for you, the ad’s aching drone shots of the plaintive American countryside return to forlorn Protestant crosses again and again over the course of its two-minute-plus runtime. “It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately,” Springsteen says, before transitioning into a mini-sermon on fear, which is not “the best of who we are” and freedom, which “belongs to us all.”
“There’s hope on the road up ahead,” Springsteen finished, doffing his cowboy hat in front of the chapel’s steeple as the sun dips in the background.
This was one of many little entreaties to unity that aired during the Super Bowl, our capitalist overlords assuming the pastoral role we Americans have been all too happy to let them fill, both implicitly and otherwise. But this one hit me different.
First, this ad should really work for me. I’m an American, after all, and one who is concerned about the ways our divisive political culture has made many of us terrified of each other. I’m also a Christian who would love to see the Church be an instrument of God’s peace in the world. Bruce Springsteen is my favorite artist, full stop, and I was, until an unfortunate hit-and-run last year, a Jeep owner too. This ad really should tic all my boxes, so why am I cringing?
Others have pointed out that it’s not entirely clear which Americans are invited to this “middle.” To use an extreme example, at a time when white nationalism is surging, many Black people may not feel like it’s wise or even particularly safe to meet “in the middle.” While compromise certainly has a place, reconciliation without a reckoning is just revisionism. But there’s another, less obvious issue here.
There’s been a lot of concern lately about Christian Nationalism — an insidious union of patriotism and Christian belief that shakes the two together until it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. It’s a creeping American cancer that was thrust into the spotlight on January 6, when a group of insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol with an array of evangelical paraphernalia. Scholars have been charting Christian Nationalism’s rise for years, and much of the attention has been focused on its surge in the Republican Party, where the well-funded and highly organized Religious Right has turned white evangelicals into one of the nation’s most reliable voting blocs.
But the Jeep ad is a reminder that Christian Nationalism is not the exclusive domain of the Right. Democrats have upped their deployment of quasi-Christian vocabulary lately over the last few months, as many noted during President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Democratic voters tend to be less Christian than Republicans, so party leaders are usually savvy enough to avoid the “America is a Christian nation” rhetoric. But the U.S. flag emblazoned over the Washington National Cathedral is doing the same work the little cross/U.S. flag combo Jeep’s U.S. Center Chapel is: codifying the idea that part of being a real American is being a good Christian and vice-versa.
If I’m being honest, this isn’t exactly a betrayal on Springsteen’s part. His music is littered with religious imagery. And while the Boss’ Democratic politics are well-known, it hasn’t done much to tarnish a living legend-y reputation that transcends party lines. A half-century of roaring anthems mythologizing the lived experiences of down-on-their-luck everymen will buy you currency from New Jersey to Nebraska. This is a good thing, so far as it goes. The more shared cultural experiences our fragmented society can find, the better. My neighbor and I might vote different but we both like “Thunder Road” and that’s not nothing. Plus, the ad wasn’t all bad. The line about “freedom” being something that “connects us” is refreshing, since Americans tend to talk about freedom more as a force that liberates us from any sense of connection or obligation to each other. What’s not good, and what does feel like a betrayal here, is tying the idea of that shared cultural experience to a Christian totem “in the middle.”
The middle, a utopian and largely hypothetical ideal of American politics, is often pitched as the grownup table of politics. People with strictly conservative or strictly progressive visions of American democracy are getting in the way of the serious centrists who could get the country back on track if everyone else would just shut up. And in Jeep’s vision, this Middle isn’t just a political ideal, but the rightful Christian identity as well. And that’s where the danger comes in.
Centrism is a valid political identity. Christians of good conscience can hold moderate political views. But should they do that because they’re Christians? And does that mean Christians who don’t arrive at such views aren’t listening to God as closely? And what about Americans who aren’t Christians? What does “the middle” look like for them?
It gets extra difficult when you realize the biblical vision of society is not particularly moderate anymore than it fits an American stereotype of Left or Right. The Christian vision of society transcends the political axis, casting an extraordinary vision for what society ought to look like. “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble,” Mary proclaims in Luke 1. “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Christians might disagree on how to achieve this goal, but regulating it to “the middle” feels like a diminishment of just how radical the upside down Kingdom of God truly is.
Maybe we’re reading too much into Jeep’s message here. It’s just an ad, after all. And maybe it’s not fair to come after Springsteen for taking a handsome check and reading a script someone else wrote. That’s fair. I’m not trying to cancel Springsteen, not that anyone could. Bruce has given me a lot over the years, as has this country, to say nothing of my faith. That’s probably why I feel so protective of all three, and want to make sure they’re properly sorted.
Christians should be very wary anytime they see their faith used as a prop for politics. This is easy to do when we don’t agree with the political party in question, but gets harder when we do, because it feels like a sign that we’re on the right side. But don’t be fooled. There is no political party in the U.S. that can map with ease onto Jesus’ vision for society, which is why Christians make do with the ones we’ve got as best as our consciences allow and then do the hard work of being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, letting the perfect love of God cast out fear, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against us.
And when we do that we can, as Springsteen himself says invite all Americans and everyone in the world to “leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last / Well, tomorrow there’ll be sunshine, and all this darkness past.”