If Alexis De Toqueville asked that we introduce him to the cultural and spiritual heart of America today, we wouldn’t need to ferry him around our pastoral idylls and our booming cities. We could save serious money by, well, sitting him before a computer, firing up the Super Bowl commercials from this past Sunday, and waiting for his reactions.
Actually, he could technically do this from the comfort of his elegant French chateau, but let’s not split traveloguical hairs here.
I think this is what he would see: there are polar Americas today. There is one that celebrates sex, hedonism, and self. There is another that celebrates family, sacrifice, and country. One is ultra-modern; the other is traditional. These polar Americas are competing strenuously for the hearts of citizens.
The Super Bowl commercials this year gave indisputable evidence of the, shall-we-say, “liberated” version, the modern America (I’ll call it the Calvin Klein America). One minute we were watching Joe Flacco, the no-nonsense, very tough Ravens quarterback throw a deep bomb for a touchdown; the next we were watching a pompadoured man contort himself like a hairless pretzel in nothing but Calvin Klein underpants. The theme of unbridled sexuality continued apace throughout the night. A man sneaking his way out of bed following a one-night stand returned to get his t-shirt from his now-discarded paramour; women shed untold layers of clothing in countless commercials for endless iterations of CSI; and then there was the halftime show, when a talented wife and mother power-writhed her way around the stage in a performance that was half-Amazon, half-striptease.
It was disheartening if you’re even vaguely traditional/biblical/moral in your thinking. Twitter, the new Nielsen rating, reflected this, at least in my evangelical corner of things, with people of all ages—many of them young—disconsolate over our version of Herod’s post-supper entertainment.
But there's a John the Baptist in our midst, and his name is Paul Harvey. Here was the second America, the one that prizes honor and nobility, roaring to life. It’s the first and oldest America, and we’ll call it the Ram America. The “So God Made a Farmer” commercial for the Dodge Ram popped up in the lights-out halftime show and blew many circuits of its own. I’ve simply not seen a better commercial. It’s a worldview in a truck ad:
God said I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk the cows, work all day in the field, milk cows again, eat supper then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board–so God made a farmer.
First impression: Paul Harvey was an amazing writer. I know of him and respect him, but I probably speak for many in the younger crowd when I say I haven’t heard a lot of his material. His celebration of the farmer, the figure representing the heart of traditional American perseverance and virtue, moved me to my core.
The Dodge ad wasn’t the only commercial that showed that the traditional America is alive. There was a great Jeep offering on the sacrifices of families and soldiers. There was another for the Wounded Warrior Project that gave attention to those who have sacrificed themselves to keep this country safe. In these and a few other spots, we saw profound testimony to the virtue of the first America, the country created ex nihilo from a body of noble ideas in accord with human dignity, sinfulness and flourishing. We recognized something quieter, but far greater and grander, in the Ram commercial and its ilk. Sexual permissiveness and one-night stands are titillating, but they cannot hold a candle to ideals like sacrifice and courage.
There was sweet irony here. The visual medium, with its ability to unveil what should be veiled, should technically be able to excite our passions more for lust and sex than, well, farmers and tractors. But it wasn’t true. The contorting Calvin Klein model looked frankly silly next to the farming family praying at table. So too with our writhing, head-banging halftime temptress. She’s a beautiful woman, but her model of womanhood pales in comparison to the beauty of the kind of modest, self-effacing women you find in countless locales across America, towns like Atkinson, Maine, where my own family operated a dairy farm for decades.
But this isn’t city vs. country, though it might seem that way. This isn’t old vs. young. It’s not stodgy vs. fun. The voices on Twitter last night who most voiced their desire for the first America, Ram America, were young, vibrant, and culturally attuned (they were on Twitter, right?). They were in cities and towns, they were men and women, and they publicly celebrated the old ways, the good paths.
I hope it’s not stretching to say this, but with many others, I saw some hope for the old ways in a Ram commercial.
I bet you might, too.
I’m not ultimately interested in the culture wars, in shoving my principles down the throat of others. I want people to know the grace and power of God, not recover a fictional dream. But it’s clear to me that one half of America is seeded by a noble vision of family and sacrifice, and the other is eating poisoned crops.
Image and video courtesy: Dodge