The storyline seems familiar enough to those who follow culture-war issues: a school principal bans the singing of “God Bless the USA” at a public-school kindergarten celebration. A coalition of patriotic, religious, and traditionalist Americans protest this secularist monstrosity. Conservative politicians show up to make election-year hay, and activist groups on all sides mobilize their fundraising apparatchiks to publicize the horrors of life in modern America. Conservatives bellow that secularism has gone too far when kindergartners are abused in this way. Liberals howl that American fascists have mobilized to overthrow the Constitutional wall of separation between church and state. Whoever wins or loses the specific dispute, the two sides both walk away more confident than ever in their mission.
But in a recent controversy at Brooklyn’s Public School 90, this shopworn tale has included some unique twists. The story from Brooklyn serves to demonstrate just how complicated Fundamentalist America can be.
Here’s the latest: the New York Times reported recently that Congressman Bob Turner led a rally in favor of “God Bless the USA.” In the words of reporter Ginia Bellafante, Turner’s move was nothing more than a cheap campaign stunt. Bellafante said Turner’s opportunism “inspires a wish for high-grade exfoliants to scrub away all the contact grease and grime.”
The school had been in the news since Principal Greta Hawkins banned “God Bless the USA” from the kindergarten graduation, briefly replacing it with a Justin Bieber hit, before also canceling the Bieber selection.
On some conservative blogs, we read that Hawkins is “A LIBERAL…….LIBERAL=TRAITOR.” According to Andrew Jones of the progressive Raw Story, Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham called Hawkins a member of the “angry left.”
For Turner, a retired media executive, Catholic, and mildly conservative Republican, this may have seemed like a no-brainer. Who can lose a campaign for “God Bless the USA?”
But the story has more wrinkles than a breeze-ruffled flag. First of all, Hawkins, an African American, has been the subject of horrific racist attacks since her decision to ban the song. The New York Daily News reported she received letters calling her “a filthy, dirty, ugly subhuman gorilla.” One of these letters included the vile threat, “Let’s hope that AIDS will do what sickle cell anemia failed to do, exterminate your whole simian race.”
And there’s more. Hawkins claimed to have banned the song because its lyrics were meant for adults, not children. A flashy New York Post article quoted some teachers as saying Hawkins objected to the song’s monocultural offensiveness. But Hawkins is no Che-loving, Bible-hating secular humanist. To the contrary, she is a Jehovah’s Witness, a denomination famously averse to patriotic demonstrations. Anyone with a doorbell is aware that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an intensely Biblical denomination. According to a Pew Forum study (see pages 44-45), The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society–as the group is formally known–is also a majority minority denomination.
Hawkins did not call this a religious-freedom case. Rather, she claimed to want a more appropriate and culturally sensitive ceremony. And Congressman Turner did not call this a religious fight. He only wanted to take a stand for traditional American values and patriotism.
There’s another twist as well: among the kaleidoscope of conservative religion in America, there is a long tradition of enmity between evangelical Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the 1920s, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) published a series of books denouncing Jehovah’s Witnesses (along with Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventism, Spiritualism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and ‘New Thought’) as one of the most dangerous “Cults and False Religions.” (King’s Business, August 1920, page 807.) And, though this tone may have moved to the fringes of conservative evangelical Protestant thought, it is easy to find evangelicals who continue to blast Jehovah’s Witnesses for embracing a false faith.
With all these wrinkles, the story of God Blessing the USA at Brooklyn’s Public School 90 demonstrates the complicated nature of life in Fundamentalist America. We see a Bible-believing public school administrator enduring vicious verbal attacks for her decision to ban a popular patriotic song. We see politicians rushing to burnish their patriotic credentials, joining in an attack that has included depressingly horrific racist slurs. We see groups of conservative, Bible-based religious people attacking one another more viciously than they attack the secularizing, atheistic, evolutionistic demons of modern American culture.
Whatever the pundits and politicians might say, this seems like nothing so much as a reminder that life in Fundamentalist America is not as simple as it may appear. The trenches in these kinds of culture-war battles do not run straight.