“Gabe Pfefer is in his final year of the M.Div program at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, TX and a part time pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He’s originally from Western Missouri and he grew up around farmers. Like most of them, he’ll never be able to afford a new Dodge truck.”
There’s little question that pro football is one of the central pillars of American civic religion in the 21st century. And it seems to me that the Super Bowl is the Easter Sunday of the secular worship of sport. It’s the day that even the casual congregant shows up pay tribute to our athletic Gods. The good pews are saved for the elite tithers while the rest of us watch from the “cheap seat balconies” of our televisions. I wonder how many of you sitting in that televised general admission section have been as troubled as I was in particular by one of the sermons that was paraded before us. I’m referring here to Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” commercial.
As it came on the screen I was greeted by a familiarly soothing voice from past. Having grown up in the semi-rural landscape of the Midwest the voice of Paul Harvey was an ever present fixture on the radio airwaves. His folksy stories of the secret sides of historical figures and cornpone sales pitches for various products harkened back to a mythical Norman Rockwell fantasia that holds a powerful sway on the white middle class and enchants us down to an almost cellular level. I admit that on my first viewing of the ad I was charmed by its celebration of the middle class agricultural values that are interwoven in the faith system of our popular civic religion. As skeptical of marketing and as socially and politically progressive as I imagine myself to be, the ad cast a spell that slipped easily past all of my defenses.
When I first read Rod’s stream of critique about the ad on twitter, my initial reaction was to feel incredulous and defensive. “Why are you attacking the farmers when there’s bigger fish to fry?” “ How can you criticize Paul Harvey?” (Note: I hadn’t really been exposed to Harvey’s troublesome political and social diatribes. They weren’t a feature of my experience of his radio show). “Aren’t you taking the seemingly metaphorical God talk in the ad too literally?” These were all thoughts and questions that ran through my head Sunday night. Despite my skepticism of his claims, something kept gnawing at me though. There were growing suspicions in my mind that I was failing to see something more deeply problematic about a seemingly innocent truck commercial. I now found myself compelled to wrestle harder and dig deeper into just what it was Rodney and other critics of the ad were reacting against that I was missing.
At about the this same time, I was also reading Charles Long’s Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion in preparation for a presentation I was going to give in a seminary class on Christian Ethics and the African American Experience. One of Long’s central arguments is that America has always misunderstood its own self identity by embracing a delusion of innocence and concealing the lessons of actual historical experience. Western Christianity, Long claims, is one of the most complicit actors in this masquerade of innocence and concealment. He calls on the theological academy to seek creative remedies for this harmful self deception. Long challenges us look for new modes of theological understanding which are more inclusive of the full range of the experiences all the participants of Western society.
Viewed within the larger context of systematic white American male self-deception, the “God Made a Farmer” ad has serious implications indeed. We can’t escape the fact that it does make a real and powerful claim about the nature of God. It claims that God celebrates and creates an agricultural system which has been complicit in the genocide of first nations people, the exploitation and commodification of African American bodies, and the ongoing degradation of the ecosystem.
As dependent as we may be on this system for our daily bread, it seems dangerous to me to uncritically celebrate a sanitized, fictionalized, and incomplete portrait of it. As Christians it is more dangerous still to claim that God puts a stamp of approval on such a portrait. The real way to pay tribute to the American farmer is make all facets of his social and economic experience visible. Let’s commemorate not only the hard labor of the white small farmer, but also the sacrifices, sorrows, progress, and challenges of the black sharecropper, the Latino field hand, and all the other forgotten parties who have shed real blood to put food on our table. When we begin to take their contributions seriously, only then may we start to talk about God’s place within this system. To do anything less is to do an oppressive injustice to all those white, black, brown, and red farmers’ struggles.