Christianity & Patriotism: Models from Williamsburg & Lake Wobegon

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Christianity & Patriotism

Williamsburg Idea of America book coverFrom Dr. Wayne Baker:
You’re free to share this series by Duncan Newcomer with friends to start a discussion. Here is the final part of Duncan’s series …

How do we talk about our differences?

Today, we consider applying a model for debating and respecting American religious and secular values. The model is a pilot project from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. They do not look at Christianity and patriotism directly, but if their experimental seminars this fall are successful the project could affect how we look at Christianity and patriotism in the future. Wayne Baker wrote about this program earlier in OurValues.

In five sites around the country this fall facilitators of the curriculum, The Idea of America, developed by Colonial Williamsburg, will be leading seminars in hopes of having them multiply in the coming years.

The idea of America is that America is a great debate. We are a nation in conversation with ourselves hoping to solve the problems of democracy for our good and for the world’s good.

Democracy, as A.J. Liebling the famed World War II New Yorker writer whom we quoted on Monday, said, is not perfect but it is perfectible. The folks at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation think so and have staked a national pilot project on that idea.

Are we involved in a cultural war between religious and Christian versus secular and patriotic values? Or as, Wayne Baker asserts in America’s Crisis of Values, are we in fact a very traditional, religious, patriotic society with strong self-expressive and secular values as well? Are we not only an exceptional country but an exception to the rule that religious values and secular values cannot mix?

What do you think? And do you know stories that mix spiritual and religious themes with secular and patriotic themes.

I do.

On July Fourth weekend Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon gave us a vision of a united American community. He described the entire town gathering for a photograph as “a living flag.”

We all went off for the living flag there—800 people in formation there on Main Street below the central building on a warm day—standing there with their enormous red, white and blue caps forming with their heads the red and the white stripes and the blue field of stars up in the corner. … And you stand there and you think: What if our clothes all fell off us at this very moment–800 people and our clothes dropped to the street … and we stood here naked? That could only mean one thing. It would mean the Second Coming. It would mean the Lord was up in the clouds.

And what if all 800 people rose with the red, white and blue caps on our heads? It would mean that not only Protestants go to heaven–Catholics do, too, and Baptists and Methodists. Jewish people, too. … All of us rising up into heaven—what a beautiful thing! Standing there and waiving, all pressed in close together in the sun while they get the camera out to take the picture of the living flag.

It’s an amazing moment in Lake Wobegon standing there in the living flag very close to other people. You’re just a grain of sand on the beach. You’re so insignificant and it’s a beautiful thing. … All around us people who are empowering themselves and who are advocating for themselves and who have stories to tell and are dreaming big dreams. And what a relief not to do that and to be nobody by standing there in the midst of everyone and to feel this great pleasure in anonymity.

Everybody has a story. Everybody has a point of view. Everybody has wisdom to pass on. But everybody enjoys shutting up now and then and being a part of the whole. It’s a great country! More good than bad. Be proud. Work to improve it.

The women are strong in America. The men are all good looking and the children are all above average. God bless America.

In this story, Keillor does not use the specific language of our dialogue this week about Christianity and patriotism. Yet he blends the Christianity we have thought of in terms of Shaker Mother Ann Lee’s ecstatic vision of the Second Coming with Thomas Jefferson’s secular idea of an America founded on equality. He brings us full circle in our conversation, this week.

Please, share these stories with friends—get America talking!

Care to read more?

Duncan Newcomer is a scholar with wide-ranging interests in history, literature and religion. He is the leading writer in this online collection of Lincoln resources. You also may want to visit Duncan’s own website where he outlines his many projects.

Dig deeper into American values by learning about Wayne Baker’s United America book—as well as the related research and the many ways groups are using his book to start healthy conversations.

The work of these two scholars converged in this earlier column: What would Lincoln say about the 10 values in United America?

Care to know more about shifting shape of religious affiliation in the U.S.? Wayne Baker published a five-part series on American Religious Trends.

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  1. Savannah says

    I’ll be very interested to hear how The Idea of America seminars go. It sounds like they have the potential to really encourage people to think about other people’s opinions and values.