If I asked you to describe a proponent of something called “Americanism,” what would you say? My guess is that your mind might jump to a jingoistic Southerner with a rifle, a pick-up truck, and a high school education, who speaks fluent ‘merican. Readers familiar with the work of David Gelernter might talk about a religious creed that views America as a new promised land and Americans as a new chosen people, committed to ideals such as liberty, equality, and democracy.
But at the Super Bowl earlier this week, Coca-Cola asked us to consider a different vision of Americanism, one that is as committed to Gelernter’s fourth great religion as any patriotic redneck or Constitution-wielding Tea-partier.
The ad, which was brilliantly put together, asks the viewer a simple question—Fill in the blank: “as American as _________.”
Apple pie? Little League baseball? Turkey dinner at Thanksgiving? A lone cowboy out on the range?
If you give the last answer, then the ad invites you on a little journey, an audio-visual quest in search of American identity. With no more westward land to conquer colonize settle, where is manifest destiny calling us? What is the next frontier?
And the ad leaves no doubt as to the answer. Manifest destiny is calling us to extend our commitment to liberty, equality, and democracy, to add a fourth ideal to our Americanist creed: diversity.
For those unfamiliar with the ad, I’d invite you to take a look. (For the over-achievers out there, be sure to check out the behind-the-scenes video.) In brief, the ad features a multi-lingual rendition of “America the Beautiful” alongside brief scenes of the various flavors in our multi-cultural melting pot. The languages—English, Spanish, Tagalog (common among Filipinos), Hindi, French, Mandarin, Arabic, and Keres (spoken by the Pueblo tribe of New Mexico). The scenes include a white rancher on a horse, a Filipino family surfing, a Latino family at their Mexican restaurant, Jewish men in yarmulkes looking out a window, Muslim women in hijab, and two gay dads at a roller rink.
Now I’m an evangelical Christian. What’s more, I’m an evangelical Christian who attends a church that annually celebrates ethnic harmony on MLK Day, sings songs in English, Spanish, and Swahili, and has a choir with the name “Every Tribe and Tongue.” So, as soon as the ad jumped into Spanish, I knew exactly what was happening, and resonated deeply with it. I’m a part of a faith that welcomes all nations; therefore, I want to be a part of a nation that welcomes all peoples.
And this is where the ad gets shrewd, and I get skeptical. Because the ad wants to move beyond multi-lingual to multi-religious and multi-sexuality. Let’s break these down one at a time.
In itself this seems rather straightforward and obvious. After all, it’s a simple fact that Americans speak more than one language. At the same time, there’s still the reality that one of the key features that has historically defined a people as a people is a common language. This is true even of multi-lingual societies, which often have a common language of trade and government. The ad even acknowledges this to a point, since English is the dominant language throughout the song, appearing at the beginning, middle, and end of the ad.
The reason for a linguistic understanding of people is at one level hopelessly pragmatic—communication requires a shared medium, a lingua franca. The light rail and most of the of the government facilities in my city give instructions in English, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong. But there are limits to this sort of multiplication. And I doubt anyone is going to charge the progressive government of Minneapolis with ethnic bigotry because they don’t offer signage in Mandarin, French, or Arabic. Nevertheless, the ad’s point remains—we are a nation of many peoples and languages, and this sort of diversity is a cause for celebration. (Which is one reason why the nativist reaction to the ad was so appalling.)
Again the claim itself is largely unobjectionable. After all, religious liberty is enshrined in the Constitution (present legal disputes about mandates and conscience notwithstanding), and America has always been filled with peoples of many faiths. But again the ad is trying to press this point home as well. First, there’s the choice of religions to emphasize. Judaism and Islam are singled out, and with clear intent. By moving from Jewish men wearing yarmulkes to Muslim women in hijab, the ad makes the not-so-subtle point that America is a peacemaker. To co-opt the language of the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, America breaks down walls of hostility. It ends enmity and strife. The conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East may be intractable, but in America harmony reigns beneath spacious skies. This is a lofty claim, and underscores the ambition (or pretension) of the ad’s Americanism.
What’s more, the claim to transcend religious differences is itself a deeply religious claim, and easily recognized if the situation is reversed. For example, at my church we have an annual Global Focus. During that week, we hang large banners adorned with pictures of people from various ethnicities and countries. We hang flags in our sanctuary that represent the nations of the world, and we do so in the shadow of a large cross and beneath the church’s mission statement which reads, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” The implication is unmistakable. In Christ, all ethnic and national barriers are broken down. In Christ, all peoples become one people. For evangelicals like us, ethnicity, nationality, and culture are subordinated to our fundamental identity in the crucified and risen Lord.
The Coke ad essentially inverts this arrangement, making the claim that religious identities are subordinated to America the Beautiful. Diverse religions have their place in Americanism, much as the various temples and cults of ancient Rome were welcomed and celebrated. But there is a supreme god in this pantheon, and all peoples, no matter their creed or denomination, must doff their hat to him/her.
This was clearly the ad’s most striking move, and I’m willing to bet one of the primary motivations for creating it. A gay couple with a young daughter, enjoying a happy day at the roller rink. Having equalized ethnicities, languages, and religions, we must now equalize expressions of sexuality. And, of course, this is the flashpoint of the present iteration of the culture war, and the reason that all of Americanism’s recent holy days have showcased the ascendant sexual orthodoxy of the Americanist creed—from the Macy’s parade to the Rose Bowl parade to the Grammys and now the Super Bowl. This is the ad’s artistic genius—it subtly and powerfully communicates that welcoming diverse languages, diverse religions, and diverse sexualities are equivalent embraces. This, we are told, is one seamless web of celebration.
And, of course, the reverse is true as well. The clear implication of the ad is that to reject the celebration of homosexual practice is no different than rejecting someone because they speak Spanish or have a different color of skin. From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall. To insist on the truthfulness of one’s religion over against those of another is just racism in another guise. And this is where the overarching message of the ad begins to grow shaky.
Americanism would have us believe that diversity is what makes us great. Or, more properly, this kind of diversity makes us great, the kind that celebrates the equal value and worth of different ethnicities, languages, religions, and sexual practices. But, as Hamlet would say, there’s the rub. For the creed that unites all of these diversities is itself a unified, totalizing, and exclusive claim. It’s the creed of Americanism. These diversities can only be celebrated when they are subordinated to a more fundamental claim, one that elevates America into a comprehensive religious ideal.
Or to use the traditional Christian language, Americanism turns America into an idol, a rival claimant for the allegiance and affections of men and women. And as I noted earlier, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus will suffer no rivals. As a Christian, I cannot elevate a creature to the status of Creator. I dare not bow the knee or lift my soul to another.
So then, let me tip my hat to Coke. They brilliantly showcased the fundamental questions facing us as a people. For evangelicals like me (as well as believers in other traditional faiths), the question is: if being a good American requires us to embrace and celebrate the full diversity on display in Coke’s advertisement, is it possible for us to remain good Americans? Or must we humbly dissent from the Americanist creed and in so doing be branded as bad Americans?
For adherents of the ad’s Americanism the question is reversed: How diverse is the diversity that makes us great? Is it wide enough to make room for historic evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, traditionalist Muslims, and orthodox Jews? Or does Diversity itself have a limit?