Ferguson clergy call police to repent

I was leafing just now through a free copy of USA Today, and this headline in particular caught my eye: “Clergy, activist arrested in ‘Ferguson October’ march.”

“Moral Monday,” as the activists called it, began at Wellspring Church in Ferguson. The demonstrators walked two blocks to the police station in heavy rain as leaders with bullhorns read the names of people killed by police nationwide….

Clergy members then faced the police officers and asked them to confess their sins and repent for the deaths of black youths.

“We are saying that these officers are members of our society and that they are part of a racist and sinful system,” [Rev. Osagyefo] Sekou said. “We are offering them the opportunity to repent and to be reconciled into our community.”

Sekou and Cornell West were subsequently arrested for crossing a police line.

An open-ended question (not a rhetorical one, though obviously my posing the question implies that I see the possibility for a certain answer): The non-violent black civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s prominently featured participation from ministers, rabbis, nuns. Does Sekou’s call to repentance carry today the same level of moral/rhetorical force that, I presume, the nuns at Selma carried? If not, why not?

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

I just found this article in The Guardian which speaks to the question I posed: Ferguson activists reject religious leaders’ platitudes.

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Joan of Ox(ford)

The student paper at my campus ran this editorial cartoon in yesterday’s issue. (Click the image for a larger version.) I’m intrigued by how dense the cartoon is with Catholic imagery. Are most students here able to “read” that imagery? Note especially where the Virgin Mary is saying, “I didn’t exist. You do…” To “get” that comment would require a pretty substantial level of iconographic literacy.

(I think that’s supposed to be the Virgin Mary, anyway. She’s riding a dragon reminiscent of the Beast from Revelation–the one the Whore rides–which is confusing–unless a rather obscure comment is being made about the juxtaposition of the Virgin and the Whore as images of femininity–or unless there’s an iconographic reference I’m missing out on because the imagery is that dense.)

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By Chris Curme

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The Road to Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby flyer corrected

On Wednesday, I gave an on-campus presentation titled, “The Road to Hobby Lobby.” I was interested in tracing the connection between Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Oregon v. Smith, the 1990 peyote case in which a 5-4 majority represented by Antonin Scalia rejected the strict scrutiny standard for “free exercise” cases. As a result of that case, Hobby Lobby couldn’t appeal to the First Amendment in claiming a violation of their religious freedom; they appealed instead to RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law that required the federal government to observe the strict scrutiny standard since the Court had held that the Constitution didn’t require it. RFRA passed with broad support across the political spectrum, but in recent years, religious conservatives have invoked RFRA to ends that dismay progressives–as in the Hobby Lobby decision. (I’ve blogged about this before.)

Here are the concluding slides from my PowerPoint presentation. They sum up “the road to Hobby Lobby,” along with what I see as the central irony of the situation:

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John 8:32 on campus

I was in my office on campus today (yes, on a Saturday), grading papers. At one point I looked out my window at an arch that cuts through my building. Over the arch is a quotation from the New Testament, John 8:32. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I thought: Why have I never blogged about this?

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan's illegible.

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan’s illegible.

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A legible version.

I’m not aware that there’s any other building on campus adorned with a biblical quotation. The building was constructed shortly after World War II, so I assume we should attribute the quotation to the “religion boom” that also inscribed the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The John 8:32 quote has the virtue of being biblical yet non-descript–hinting at a Christian or Judeo-Christian heritage while leaving the contents of “the truth” wide open. Perfect for 1950s-era religious liberalism.

While surfing the web for photos of the arch, I discovered a student essay published in the campus newspaper last year. The student, a conservative Christian evidently, complains that too many at the university no longer believe in absolute truth. Thus 1950s-era religious liberalism has become a nostalgic refuge for 21st-century Christian conservatism.

Recently I was walking under the famous Upham Hall arch. [...] I have made this walk countless times, but on this occasion the block letter words spanning across the apex of the arch caught my attention. Coldly graven into the moss-tinted cement were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I was surprised the iconic Miami building had these words boldly posted on it. Ironically, many of the professors and students who work and study between the walls of Upham Hall do not believe in Truth. [...]

The engraved words about truth now perched across Upham Hall were once spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, near the time of his crucifixion he was asked the same question many of us are still asking today. [...] Pilate showed an indifference to what Jesus had to reply, revealing he did not really want an answer to his question. I wonder sometimes if we truly want an answer. Do we really want to know truth? Or are we satisfied asking the question, reveling in our sophistication, but not waiting around to hear a coherent answer? Until we decide we want to know the truth, we will never find the answer, and words about truth will continue to be cold, meaningless and moss-covered symbols on our campus.

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John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues”

In my intro course to American religion, we recently read some excerpts from John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues,” written around 1670. The dialogues were intended to help train Native converts to Christianity (Massachusett converts to Puritanism, to be more precise) to serve as missionaries to their people. In the imagined dialogue, a missionary named Piumbukhou returns to a village called Nashaurreg (apparently after an absence of 20 years, based on clues dropped during the conversation), where he tries to explain to his relatives why their traditions are now dung in his mouth compared to the sweet honey of Christianity. The style of Piumbukhou’s preaching feels quintessentially Puritan–systematized, long-winded, and, let’s be frank, boring except when he’s unleashing polarizing metaphors to condemn unregenerate Native ways (like the dung/honey metaphor I just paraphrased).

I presume that the questions and challenges posed to Piumbukhou by his Native interlocutors are based on questions Eliot had actually encountered. I was particularly intrigued, therefore, by this interchange. (Note that the non-Christian Natives, unlike the Christianized Piumbukhou, don’t get names.)

KINSMAN. [...] But how shall I know that you say true? Our forefathers were (many of them) wise men, and we have wise men now living. They all delight in these our delights. They have taught us nothing about our soul, and God, and heaven, and hell, and joy and torment in the life to come. Are you wiser than our fathers? May not we rather think that English men have invented these stories to amaze us and fear us out of our old customs, and bring us to stand in awe of them, that they might wipe us of our lands, and drive us into corners, to seek new ways of living, and new places too? And be beholding to them for that which is our own, and was ours, before we knew them.

ALL. You say right.

Note that Eliot represents this as a generally held suspicion on the part of the Natives: “All” the spectators agree with the Kinsman. Eliot’s response, in the mouth of Piumbukhou:

PIUM. The Book of God is no invention of Englishmen. It is the holy law of God himself, which was given unto man by God, before Englishmen had any knowledge of God; and all the knowledge which they have, they have it out of the Book of God. And this book is given to us as well as to them [...] Yet this is also true, that we have great cause to be thankful to the English, and to thank God for them. For they had a good country of their own, but by ships sailing into these parts of the world, they heard of us, and of our country, and of our nakedness, ignorance of God, and wild condition. God put it into their hearts to desire them to come hither, and teach us the good knowledge of God; and their King gave them leave so to do, and in our country to have their liberty to serve God according to the word of God. And being come hither, we gave them leave freely to live among us. They have purchased of us a great part of those lands which they possess. They love us, they do us right, and no wrong willingly. If any do us wrong, it is without the consent of their rulers, and upon our complaints our wrongs are righted. They are (many of them, especially the ruling part) good men, and desire to do us good.

Eliot seems a touch sensitive here. “We could have stayed back in England, where things were fine for us,” he insists, “but instead we crossed the ocean to bring the gospel to you naked, wild savages out of the goodness of our hearts”–except, of course, being a good Calvinist, he has to clarify that God put that goodness in their hearts. I note that Eliot feels the need to invoke two different sources of legitimation for English colonization: first, the charter that the Puritans received from the king of England; but of course that doesn’t mean squat to the Massachusetts, so he adds, “Plus, you gave us permission to live here.” And, he continues, we’ve paid for, um, “a great part,” at least, of the lands we now possess.

Eventually a “kinswoman” tries to shut Piumbukhou down this way:

KINSWOMAN. You make long and learned discourses to us which we do not well understand. I think our best answer is to stop your mouth, and fill your belly with a good supper, and when your belly is full you will be content to take rest yourself, and give us leave to be at rest from these gastering and heart-trembling discourses. We are well as we are, and desire not to be troubled with these new wise sayings.

“Here–accept our hospitality, and stop trying to push your religion onto us.” A losing strategy–in the imagined dialogues and in real life.

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Bumper Stickers: Window to the Soul

A few days ago, my husband found the following note on our windshield when he came out of the gym. The handwriting appears to be that of a young woman, presumably a student from campus.

I love your bumper sticks, you seem like you would have a great soul. Let’s be friends

Her phone number followed.

(By the way: “Bumper sticks”? I’d never encountered that usage.)

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my own interest in bumper stickers as a form of religious expression in public space. These are the bumper stickers on which the note-writer was basing her conclusions about the greatness of my soul. Most of these are my husband’s responsibility more than mine, though I don’t object to any of them.

IMAG0541We haven’t responded to the invitation to call the note-writer–it just doesn’t seem appropriate, although I worry that not responding could be potentially wounding.

Some weeks ago, someone left a tract on our windshield written by a Seventh-day Adventist criticizing the ecumenical movement. We appeared to be the only targets–i.e., tracts hadn’t been left on the cars around us–so I’m guessing this was a response to the “Coexist” bumper sticker.

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Homosexuality vs. Polygamy

This past July, I attended a luncheon in Salt Lake City–I’ve referred to this before–where I rubbed elbows with foreign scholars who were in the U.S. for a seminar on religion in American society. I was there as an expert on Mormonism, and the conversation turned for a while to Mormon polygamy, historical and contemporary. An Egyptian scholar asked me: If Americans accept gay marriage, why don’t they accept polygamy? I replied that, actually, there does appear to be some measure of increasing sympathy for contemporary Mormon polygamists, as indicated by their positive treatment on TV (Big Love, Sister Wives, Polygamy USA) and by states’ general reluctance to prosecute polygamists for polygamy per se. If, I hypothesized, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of gay marriage, Mormon polygamists would look very closely at that decision to see if its principles could be applied to their case.

In retrospect, I realize that I probably missed the point of the scholar’s question. I suspect, now, that the point of his question was to register surprise that Americans are proving more tolerant of homosexuality than of heterosexual polygamy. Which, when I think about, is certainly not a self-evident state of affairs. Until I started reflecting on this outsider’s question, I had taken for granted, as an American cultural insider, that social acceptance of polygamous relationships represents a “next step” beyond social acceptance of homosexual relationships. But why is that? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why aren’t heterosexual polygamous relationships–because they’re heterosexual–more acceptable than homosexual couplings? I presume that for my Egyptian interlocutor, that last is the more logical way to think about the issue.

I guess what this shows is that for Americans, monogamy is a more fundamental cultural value than heteronormativity. Increasing numbers of Americans–I think polls indicate it’s a narrow majority at this point, yes?–are prepared to re-imagine marriage as the union of two women or two men. But a greater number of us are still inclined to think that a marriage should consist of just two people. Presumably this has a lot to do with the popularization of romantic, companionate models of marriage during the 19th century, which is itself related to the slower shift toward equality for women in modernized Western societies, which in turn is related to the West’s self-perception of its superiority over peoples whom it had or was colonizing–Egyptian Muslims, for example. Eventually, the romantic, companionate model of marriage was expanded to include gay/lesian couples. It’s taking more work to stretch the model to include polygamous couples.

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Catholics in St. Anthony, Idaho, 1909

I was leafing this morning through Orbis Books’ documentary history The Frontiers and Catholic Identities, when my eye was caught by a reference to St. Anthony, Idaho, the little town where I spent my elementary school years. (My parents moved us out of St. Anthony at the right time to leave me with happy Lake Wobegonish childhood memories of the place rather than hellish hicktown junior high memories. Sorry, St. Anthony–you are what you are.) The historical document having to do with St. Anthony was part of Father Alvah W. Doran’s account of a 1909 missionary tour he made on the coincidentally named St. Anthony Chapel Car. Here’s what he had to say about his stop in the town of St. Anthony:

We could not omit this town, however much work our shortness of time compelled us to leave undone this trip in Idaho. The honor of the Chapel Car’s patron saint constrained us to preach his religion to a community as ignorant of it as they were of how their town received its good name. There are a handful of the very best kind of Catholics here, and the foundations have been dug for a church. We trust that our work will raise it above ground-level soon. St. Anthony, pray for them! [...] At this place the opera-house had been lately burned but the Mormons granted the use of their meeting-house. Thursday evening the Mormon choir had a rehearsal, and then remained to sing at our services. (The Frontiers and Catholic Identities, pp. 125-126)

I would guess that the church whose construction he refers to is the same little Catholic church that was standing in St. Anthony when I lived there–and which is still standing there: Mary Immaculate. Here are some photos from the church’s website.

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The last time I visited St. Anthony, over a decade ago, the church had installed a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe out front–a sign of the times. I knew already (from a Mexican immigrant family I met while volunteering as a medical interpreter at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City) that St. Anthony had experienced an upsurge of Latino residents.

I can’t imagine that the Mormon church I attended while living in St. Anthony is the same one Fr. Doran preached at in 1909, though I wonder if it might have stood on the same site.

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500 Years of Religion and Empire

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I’ve completed the syllabus for one of the courses I’m teaching this semester. Although this is a first run, which will need revising in future semesters, I’m very pleased with how it turned out, which is code for “I’m feeling a bit vain.” (Which in turn is code for just plain “I’m feeling vain.”) If nothing else, I think the syllabus is pretty to look at–I certainly enjoy looking at it.

The most important thing is that this syllabus represents a new approach, for me, to teaching an “intro to American religions” course. My theme this semester is “religion and empire,” which I’m using to construct a new kind of grand narrative for U.S. religious history, a more geographically expansive narrative than is conventional. I’m not aware of a textbook on this subject, so I pulled together a collection of short historical documents as readings–that was a lotta effin’ work. Click the link to admire the results with me.

REL 101D Fall 2014 Course Policies and Schedule – Duffy

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Protestant Christian Values in Country Music

This is the last in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant Christian Values in Country Music
By Zachary LeCompte

When you listen to country music what do you hear? Or more importantly what don’t you hear? While you may say, “I hear songs about trucks, girls and farms”, would you believe me if I said one could also include “I hear a Christian parable”? Would you believe me if I said that in country music, we can see Christian themes and ideas reflected in both the lyrics of the songs and the music videos released by popular country artists? Do you believe that this would be possible in a culture where you seem to be encouraged to suppress religious expressions in order to achieve mainstream success?

Religion In Mainstream Music

As detailed in William Romanowski’s article “Evangelicals and Popular Music”, located in the publication Religion and Popular Culture in America, if popular artists want to achieve mainstream success they have to be willing to suppress or minimize the religious influence of the songs. That is to avoid using overtly religious lyrics that may go against the general population’s idea of what popular music should sound like. This can be credited to our cultures increasing secularization, as well as the increasing tendency to avoid explicitly religious expressions to avoid offending those of different beliefs.

And according to Campbell et al. in Media and Culture, country music is the most popular radio format in the United States. That is there are more country music radio stations than any other music format and only talk radio has more across all formats.

So on one had we see Romanowski say that popular music has to be secularized and on the other hand we see Campbell et al. say that country is the most popular music form, and yet we see Christian themes in country music. Themes such as individualism and pre-millennialism; Individualism being the focus of the individual’s personal relationship with God and pre-millennialism being the idea that Jesus will return to earth and bring a period of peace and the return of the kingdom of God.

Protestant Themes In Country Music Lyrics

Rich Tiner states in his article “Positively Country” from the periodical Christianity Today, “Non-Christian listeners are getting tired of some of the messages in mainstream country”, showing that many have begun to notice this trend. Tiner goes on to define two kinds of country music that contain theses messages or themes. The first is “positive country” or “implicitly Christian, conveying Biblical values but not necessarily a gospel message” which tends to find its way to mainstream more often. The second is “Christian country” or “overtly Christian with an explicit gospel message” which is often less welcomed on the mainstream stations but enjoys great success on its own.

Individualism

One perfect example of individualism is the radio single from artist Thomas Rhett named “Beer With Jesus”. This song received ample airtime and peaked at number 19 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay. The song paints of picture of what Rhett would ask if he were to garner some alone time with Jesus. In the chorus Rhett sings, “Do you hear the prayers I send, what happens when life ends? And when you think you’re comin’ back again?” Within these words we can see distinctly Christian messages like praying to Jesus, the idea of an after life and the return of Jesus to earth.

Later he asks, “What’s on the other side? Is mom and daddy alright? And if it ain’t no trouble tell them I said hi.” Again we see the idea of an after life. However, now we also see the idea that if you believe in God, you will go to heaven to be with Jesus when you die. This is portrayed when Rhett asks if Jesus could tell his deceased parents that he said hello, implying that Jesus would see them upon his return to heaven.

Another example of individualism is Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”. This song enjoyed success across the board, peaking at number 1 on Billboards US Hot Country Songs and number 4 on Billboards US Christian Songs. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Country song as well as and Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year and a Gospel Music Association Award for Country Recorded Song of the Year.

The song tells the story of a young woman driving to visit her parents in Cincinnati when she loses control of her car. After it comes to a stop she decides to pray and to devote herself to Jesus, asking him to “take the wheel” of her life. We see here the Christian message of prayer as well as the idea that one should devote their lives to Jesus and leave their lives at his mercy.

Another song that carries a Christian theme of individualism is the 1948 Hank Williams song “I Saw the Light”. This song was discussed in the article “Preaching and Country Music” by Lamar Potts from the publication Journal for Preachers. In the song Williams talks of how he lived a life of sin, unwilling to accept change until one day he let Jesus in and it changed his life. We see this in the opening verse:

I wandered so aimless life filed with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear savior in, Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night, Praise the lord I saw the light.

The song also presents the idea of good vs. evil, which is very prevalent in Protestantism in several ways. The first is the more conservative view of the battle of living life morally and spiritually holy and avoiding a life filled with sin. The second view of good vs. evil is more of a liberal view of society trying to combat the evils that plague the community as a whole and trying to eliminate evils such as poverty, oppression and injustice.

In this case the view is more conservative, and focuses mainly on the narrators life and experiences. It is for this reason that the song is a good example of individualism.

Pre-Millennialism

Ted Olsen of Christianity Today points out in the article “Johnny Cash’s Song of Redemption” that the country legend had more that one hit that carried a Christian message. Perhaps the best example of this is his song “The Man Comes Around”. It was one of the most successful songs from the back half of his career, selling 500,000 copies before his death.

The songs centers around a main theme of the end of the world, and more specifically the apocalypse as described in the book of revelation. The song opens and closes with two spoken verses from the book of Revelation, one introducing the first horseman of the apocalypse and the other introducing the last horseman.

Open: “And I heard as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw, and behold a white horse” – Revelation 6:1-2

Close: “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and behold, a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” – Revelation 6: 7-8

We also see many other allusions to the Bible in the lyrics of these songs such as “Then the father hen will call his chickens home” as well as “It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come”. Both of these lines stick to the songs pattern of using biblical references to illustrate its story. And it is the use of these references we see not only a Christian influence, but also more specifically a pre-millennialist Protestant influence.

Christian Images In Country Music Videos

We also see Christian messages portrayed in music videos for songs. One music video we see a Christian messages in is Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again” video. Throughout the video we see crosses on the screen in a variety of places. One in an elderly widows living room, and another at a cemetery. We also see make shift crosses left made from debris left after a deadly tornado.

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We also see messages written near sites of tragedies. One shot shows a wall that is spray-painted with, “God Bless Sandy Hook”, referring to the school shooting. Another shows a heart with the message, “keep faith Moore, OK” in response to the deadly outbreak of Tornadoes. We also see a tombstone flash on the screen with the inscription “God heals all wounds”. In addition, we also see people raise their hands towards the sky, as you would see one doing in church or in prayer on multiple occasions.

Perhaps the strongest Christian image we see is a video clip of a father and a son being baptized together during a church service. By placing this clip in the video for the song, “See You Again”, it is implied that the father and the son will eventually meet again in heaven now that they have accepted the Lord as their savior.

Another example of a country song having Christian messages portrayed in its music video is the video for “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. This video actually contains clips of a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus as well as other images. Some of the other images include a portrait of Jesus and an arch with a golden cross on top.

Other music videos we see Christian messages in include the video for Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” and Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown”. In Keith’s video we see a soldier praying and kissing a crucifix necklace as he prepares to go into battle, showing the importance of prayer and faith in God to protect you from your enemies.

In Church’s video we see many of the scenes at a cemetery where we see many crosses throughout. We then see the burial plot the main character is visiting, which has a cross placed at the head of the plot and a minister standing and reading from a Bible. The minister is praying for the soul of the deceased to be accepted to heaven.

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What’s the Explanation?

In a culture that is increasingly secularized, and promotes silenced religious expressions in mainstream music, how is it that we can see such distinct messages make it into mainstream airplay? It may have to do with the fact that despite the increasing secularization, we are still a nation with a strong heritage of Christianity in our culture as well as a strong Protestant influence in today’s culture. And due to this influence, many Americans are still accepting of Christian expressions.

Another reason could be that Christian culture had a large influence in the southern United States, a region also known as the “Bible Belt”.

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The Christian influence in the “Bible Belt” is important because the region is the “home of country music” (Nashville, Tennessee) and also produces a large number of country musicians, especially from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Therefore, the personal beliefs of country musicians, and listeners may also contribute to the tolerance of Christian messages in the music.

But regardless of the reason, country music shows us that the American culture may not be as opposed to religious expression as it seems. It shows that the culture is still tolerant of Christianity. Not much unlike “moments of silence” replacing moments of prayer. We see the secularized context, but we still understand the original Christian concept. And while many still view it as a moment to pray, or exercise their faith, we allow it because it isn’t demanding our participation nor forcing us to alter our beliefs. This is similar to Christian themes being shown in country music, because while they are there, they don’t dominate the landscape. There are plenty of secular country songs to balance out the tone of the music.

In fact we even see this balancing demonstrated inside the genre of country music. Positive country, as described by Tiner, serves as the more toned down, or modest version for mainstream stations, whereas Christian country tends to be more vocal and dominating, therefore being marginalized for niche audiences.

So while religious messages may not be supported in mass, from time to time, they are still welcome in moderation. And this shows us that Protestantism has shaped American culture to be tolerant of religious expressions in mainstream culture, as long as they don’t dominate the landscape.

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