The Problem With the Lee Greenwood Bible

A man holds a Bible and a Trump flag during a protest rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, last year. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Christian nationalists hoped to be riding high by this juncture in 2021, with a reelected Donald Trump owning the libs, a conservative Supreme Court preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the conservative Evangelical churches that didn’t defy COVID-19 restrictions now resuming full-tilt services. Two out of three ain’t bad, but still, the troops need a tonic, and as the Washington Post reported Friday, they will soon have a distinctive gift to give each other that brings back fond memories of the post-9/11 patriotic crusade to smite Islam in the name of Jesus:

A new Bible that includes the U.S. Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance is generating controversy before it has even hit the market.

The “God Bless the USA Bible” is expected to go on sale in September, in time to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a Nashville-based marketer who will distribute the book …

The Bible will also include lyrics from singer Lee Greenwood’s hit song “God Bless the USA,” which topped pop charts after Sept. 11, 2001. Using the historic King James Version, the “God Bless the USA Bible” has about 600 preorders for $49.99.

For those of you who didn’t grow up (as I did) reciting the Pledge of Allegiance alongside the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, the conjunction of religious and secular texts may seem a mite strange, if not actively offensive. But the notion of America as distinctively God-blessed goes back to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Evangelical notions of liberation from state-sanctioned religion, turned upside down in more contemporary Evangelical notions of state-sanctioned Christianity as a liberation from cultural secularism and liberalism. The particular militancy associated with Christian nationalism arose during the Cold War struggle against atheistic communism, which gave way after the collapse of the Soviet empire to a struggle against the twin perils of Islam and democratic socialism. The conflation of aggressive religious and nationalist impulses peaked in the Christian-soldier enthusiasm of the George W. Bush administration, when Evangelical commanders sent tanks adorned with crosses and insults to Islam into battle in Iraq, and domestic antiwar protesters were regarded as traitors to both God and country.

This was the era exemplified by Greenwood’s song, which he memorably performed at Yankee Stadium on October 31, 2001, before game four of that year’s post-9/11 World Series.

That atmosphere of sanctified superpatriotism faded in New York and much of bicoastal America in the ensuing years of military hubris and domestic inequality. But it lived on in parts of the heartland that looked back on the imaginary past of an unambiguously Christian and self-righteous nation as the era of American greatness that cried to be restored. It’s no accident that Greenwood became associated with Christian conservative politics, and with its latest avatar, the 45th president:

Personally, I have no problem with the patriotic impulse, and am immensely grateful (and sometimes ashamed) at the privileges being born here gave me as a white middle-class male who managed narrowly to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. But the Greenwood song is problematic. “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Hm. Are people not free in most of Europe, in Japan, in Canada? The only “freedom” distinctive to the United States I am aware of is our really unusual right to arm ourselves to the teeth. As for ubiquitous freedom, I suspect our high incarceration rates make that postulate a wee bit shaky.

The other premise of the Greenwood song, which is worth pondering this Memorial Day, is the debt we uniquely free Americans owe to military veterans, particularly those who died in our service (“I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me”). I am indeed grateful (and, again, somewhat ashamed) in the presence of veterans and their memory, since like Donald Trump (and, for that matter, Lee Greenwood), I never wore the uniform. But Memorial Day is properly a testament to those who sacrificed and were sacrificed (including civilians) in wars just and unjust, not a celebration of sanctified American righteousness. And as a Christian, I’d just as soon leave the Almighty and the Prince of Peace out of every commemoration of warfare.

An attendee walks past a poster of Jesus wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat ahead of campaign rally for then-President Donald Trump in Avoca, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 2020. Photo: Al Drogo/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So no, I won’t be ordering the “God Bless the USA” Bible and, despite the false witness of Christian nationalists like the pseudo-historian David Barton, do not believe the U.S. Constitution (particularly the unamended version that required a bloody Civil War to repair) is some sort of divinely ordained document bestowing God’s special blessing on this particular corner of the world.

When this subject comes up, I often mention some relatives I had in Alabama who refused to acknowledge daylight savings time because standard time is “God’s time.” The tendency to divinize secular traditions is sort of the original sin of conservative Christianity, in which the day before yesterday is “godly.” And it’s how you wind up with a “patriotic” Bible and huge audiences who “stand up” for Christian soldiers fighting for a narrow definition of freedom. The best thing about the battered but not totally defeated American tradition of separation of church and state is that we can and should avoid mixing up God and country. If some country-music singer wants to record a song about that, I’m all ears.

The Problem With the Lee Greenwood Bible