As a photographer, I am often drawn towards photographing artifacts that represent the semiotics of culture. A camera allows me to point at something and ask questions. The great 20th century social documentary photographer Dorthea Lange stated that every photograph had to ask two questions: “Is this my world? If not, what does it have to do with my world?”
With photography I am able to organize and transmit facts as a contribution to the discourse that I hope will get people to think critically about Dorthea Lange’s two questions.
Swiss photographer Robert Frank exemplified this with his book The Americans published in 1959. In this book he asked questions with his camera that painted a portrait of America pre-civil rights. Prior to that the F.S.A. photographer Gordon Hines and Walker Evans contributed their efforts towards creating a portrait of America that asked these same questions.
Listening and watching the stories of the past year leading up to this year’s presidential election I have noted the increase in the rhetoric surrounding gun rights and christianity. This photograph of magazine covers illustrates the extreme juxtaposition that has been shaped into a singular American identity for conservatives in this country. Just last week the Lieutenant Governor of Idaho made a video where she put a gun on top of a bible.
I cannot help but be puzzled by how the icon of peace, love, and a message of turn the other cheek is surrounded by small but significant number of followers who are advocating for arming ourselves and treating anyone who disagrees or has a different faith as an evil element. Is this my world?
I wouldn’t be so sensitive to this rhetoric if it wasn’t for the knowledge that it took no more than 7% of support for the nazi party to take control in Germany. Christian Nationalism has emerged as a significant player in national politics and anti semitism is on the rise. It was only two years ago that Robert Gregory Bowers shot up the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh
These magazine covers makes me uncomfortable. Much of the sound bites in the news can trigger a quick comparison to the imagery and language of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will (1934).
However, I think it is important to lean into my discomfort rather than to stop and react with anger or fear. I wanted to ask myself where does this cultural influence come from? What does it have to do with my world.?
A few months ago as I was driving across central Oregon I listened to a radio show that was telling the story of Puritan leader John Winthrop who was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The show was a sermon about the covenant between God and the United States and how Winthrop delivered a sermon just prior to the Puritans landing in America about how “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
The broadcast was a moralizing sermon that fit the standard format of “the description of the present evil, a prophecy of doom, followed by a call for repentance” Winthrop’s sermon quote was used as part of the call for repentance.
The sermon wove a tale of how 9/11 was the direct result of the United States breaking their covenant with God and how the first plane to slam into the world towers took off from Logan Airport which was originally known as Governor’s island where Winthrop went to pray. Events were leveraged as symbols to tell a persuasive story. The location of the desert where I was hearing this preaching only further lended itself to an image of Exodus as I continued to drive.
I was familiar with the Winthrop sermon from reading a collection of essays by the eminent American historian Perry Miller who shaped much of the narrative in school history books throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
It was Miller who first identified Winthrop’s obscure sermon titled A Model of Christian Charity and developed it into a origin story for the United States sense of identity. In his anthology Nature’s Nation Miller noted that the sheer enormity of wilderness required people of strong faith and sense purpose to survive. Miller’s Puritan American Mindset became standardized in history books and in the development of American Studies and American Literature. I think this is where the manifest destiny ideology originates as well that was taught as justification for the subjugation of native Americans.
What is interesting about the original Miller essays was that he did not believe the Puritans were advocating for individualism but rather pointed out the communal qualities necessary to survive. Perhaps the story of Thanksgiving would be a better fit here.
In his own version of a moralizing sermon Perry Miller warned about how all empires fall as a result of too much surplus wealth that causes people to stop pulling together with a shared purpose.
Miller’s warning has been largely ignored. His story of the origins of the American ethos have been adopted conservative politicians and the N.R.A. who have now shaped it into something that has evolved into a much more individualistic message.
Winthrop’s sermon became the centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s campaign and has morphed into the gun rights messaging of the National Rifle Association. The N.R.A. have used religious language to make a case that the declaration of independence and the constitution were gifts directly from God as part of our covenant.
Thomas Jefferson is presented as another Moses who led the United States through its own Exodus story and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are viewed as gifts direct from God. The second amendment is presented as being above any gun law that governments could try to enforce. I think this is the viewpoint that is presented in this photograph of magazine covers.
In Karen Armstrong’s book The Case for God she tracks the genealogy of conservative christianity and the split that occurred during the age of enlightenment which pitted science (seen as being aligned with atheism) and faith against one another and caused both sides to polarize in a process of trying to prove the other wrong. Science and conservative christians are at opposite positions on issues of climate change and pandemic. This polarization has taken on the identity of conservative vs. liberal.
As I looked at the congressional district map for where I live I could see this polarization expressed as rural vs. urban. Inside the city boundaries the district was represented by democrats. Just outside the city boundaries all the districts were represented by Republicans. My wife and I live less than half a mile from the city line out in the County. We are at the inflection point between conservative and liberal politics.
Critics of Millers American Identity hypothesis point out that Puritans made up only one portion of America. This world view doesn’t take into consideration the diversity of immigrants. Nor does it take into consideration the Native Americans that were already here or the African Americans that were brought here against their will. How do we protect the liberty for all people? How do we honor different beliefs among all members of multicultural nation? I can only hope that by asking the questions of “what does this have to do with my world?” that we can begin to build bridges that will allow us to pull together for the common good.
Today as our presidential election takes place I am praying for peace, wisdom, and compassion in the days ahead.