Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl commercial might actually bring Americans together

Poet W.B. Yeats came to recognize something precious and profound at center of his this-worldly identity during family vacations in County Sligo: his Irishness.  In 1923, at the age of 58, Yeats accepted the Nobel Prize the only way he could — as an Irishman on behalf of Ireland.  What motivated the committee was "[Yeats's] always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."

Symbols That Shame And Save

But what about that black preacher poet across the Atlantic, that slave-descendent Baptist of that land where so many Irish found refuge in the time of the great famine?  Was such a patriotism to him also vouchsafed?  Amazingly yes.  The unjust, humiliating, and murderous degradations dealt out by the Jim Crow South notwithstanding, Martin Luther King, Jr. refused to relinquish his claim upon either the flag flown by the nation of his birth or the Bible it placed in his hands.  His words penned in a Birmingham jail cell record the miracle:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

What lay at the center of the identity of King's nation lay also at the center of his own being, his own identity.  Because this was so, Martin Luther King Jr., as a native son, was able to deliver an ennobling shaming to America.  Let us be who we say we are.  Only symbols unalterably fixed by history made possible the pressure that produced the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.  King brandished the Bible and the Bill of Rights, the flag and the founding fathers, the cross and the Constitution necessary to shame even as doing so ennobled this people, this nation, between these oceans, on this blood-hallowed Gettysburg earth.

Symbols trump Springsteen

Jeep and Bruce Springsteen decided they needed powerful symbols to make a post-Trump and good-riddance-to-Trump Super Bowl pitch for national unity.  They targeted the irredeemables, the MAGA hats, the clingers, the 75 million.  There at the actual geographic center of the lower 48 states, Springsteen and Jeep confronted not only a tableau uncontrived by costal elites, Big Tech moguls, or university professors, but one over which the left, at least for now, exercises no control whatsoever.  There the citizens of Lebanon, Kansas gathered and displayed symbols disdained by the cultural revolutionaries who destroy the nation's cities with fire and fill the heads of the nation's children with critical race theory and intersectionality — a Christian chapel bearing a wooden cross framed by the Stars and Stripes within a humble worship space amid the storied amber waves of grain.

These were authentic symbols, inherited, boasting long fraught histories, recognized, embraced, and re-embraced for generations.  These were not pretenders to national symbol status such as a rainbow flag hastily crafted for a modern cause.  Nor were they the sacred symbols or shaping scriptures of some other nation where the Crescent, Star, and Koran might serve some unifying aim.  Appeal to the heart of this nation required the same symbols MLK embraced and wielded — the cross and the flag and all that they represent. 

Springsteen and Jeep may deserve every scintilla of conservative cynicism evoked by their Super Bowl call to national re-unity.  But the symbols pressed into their hands, whether voluntarily or not, by the citizens of Lebanon, Kansas pack powers far beyond what the likes of a mere car company in cahoots with a crooning, guitar-strumming Jersey boy can hope to fully contain or channel or control.  They played with the Christian and patriotic fire they knew appeal to the deplorables, and the resultant blaze shall burn where it wills.

Faith and the Flag Are Our Friends

The left Springsteen champions and corporate America alternately advances and bows to has largely lost its ability to reproduce with a clear conscience the sort of unadulterated affection for either the flag or the cross they found on display on the plains of Kansas.  Evangelical elites have chastised their erstwhile followers who voted virtually as a bloc for Donald Trump.  Too much patriotism smacked of idolatry, they were told.  But the charge never fit and so never stuck.  The cross and the flag belonged together for them, for MLK, and for the good citizens of Lebanon, Kansas because the history the symbols witnessed to in the land on which that history played out put them together.  Support for America and the worship of God were never at odds, never mixed up, and never in competition for them.

Symbols and Sin

Yeats left directions for the disposal of his body in his poem Under Ben Bulben.  He wished his bones interred beneath the dark Irish ground of County Sligo, the site of the discovery of his Irishness.  But patriots, whether poets or preachers or politicians, are never pure, and neither was Yeats.  Much of his later poetry glamorizes vulgarity and infidelity.  Long before BLM formally despised the nuclear family and made the queering of the nation its priority, the married, dirty old man Yeats rolled in the sack with more than one very young woman to whom he had taken no vows and whom his two children did not know as their mother.

But Yeats's moral corruption owed no more to his nationalism than did chattel slavery to America's founding, as Frederick Douglass discovered when he read the Constitution and became irresistibly an irrepressible patriot.  MLK understood from personal experience that neither his nation nor he himself had lived up to the standard set by the Bible, the cross, the Declaration of Independence, or the Stars and Stripes.  From Thomas Jefferson to JFK to MLK to DJT, patriotism has traveled, because it had to, with imperfection.  The flaws and failures attaching to these legacies are not small, but neither are they Hitler- or Stalin- or Mao-like in depth and heinousness.  We repudiate, deface, and destroy monuments to and symbols of true patriotism at our peril.

Does the Springsteen/Jeep refusal to eschew the symbols they found in Lebanon, Kansas recall a classic liberalism that cherishes the nation's 1776 founding and honors the Judeo-Christian heritage MLK championed — the heritage BLM repudiates and attacks?  Let us hope.

This nation can hear and heed hard words about itself.  It has done so more than once.  But only words that ennoble as they shame, spoken by true patriots, avail for the nation's good or for any unity to which the adjective "American" may authentically apply.  National bonds of unity require true symbols for their nurturing and securing, those drawn from the 1776 collection, the ones MLK and some folks in Kansas reached for and that Jeep and Springsteen found they could neither repudiate nor evade.

Mark DeVine teaches at the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama and is the author of Bonhoeffer Speaks Today and Shalom Yesterday, Today, and Forever.

Image: Stian Schløsser Møller via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.