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No More Iowa Nice

Among all the varieties of Midwest Nice, no doubt Iowa Nice is the nicest. So it has been surprising to see recent cases of culture skirmishes (we’re too nice to have culture wars) break out in the Hawkeye state.

Just across the river, in Knoxville, Iowa, a potent brew of patriotism and religion has been bubbling over. A couple weeks before that, the Iowa Board of Education ruled that public school choirs may sing religious music. For the time being at least, the scoreboard seems to read “Religion” 2, “Secularists/Atheists” 0.

In Knoxville, a city whose economic engine has long been a federal Veterans Administration hospital, the brouhaha began when a well-meaning Vietnam vet placed a homemade memorial in a city park—a plywood silhouette of a soldier kneeling by a comrade’s grave. Later, he put another one on the hospital grounds. That one was removed immediately for no reason other than gifts and articles cannot be placed on federal property without prior approval.knoxville

Here is the first layer of the controversy. Are all people free simply to decorate public spaces, no matter how good their intentions? Guarding public space is no indicator of an anti-religious agenda. I hesitate to guess what the sanctuary and kitchen in my church building would look like if everyone was allowed to place there what they thought beautiful, meaningful, or necessary. How many “Footprints” plaques and cast-sand pet memorials could one chancel hold?

The real nub of the issue, however, is that the gravestone the silhouetted solider kneels before is a cross. Why not a more typical headstone, or the army helmet on top of a rifle, traditionally used in battle? Because a cross is the most common of military gravestones. Having recently stood in the American cemetery in Normandy—a sea of small white crosses with an occasional Star of David—I know this to be the case.

normandyThe small white cross on public space was deemed inappropriate by an anonymous someone. The city of Knoxville received an official complaint from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The fuse was lit.

The reaction has been incredible, waaaaaay bigger than the issue would seem to merit. Many homes in the town have placed white crosses in their yards in support of the memorial. About 2,000 people showed up at a rally in support of the memorial.

Something deep and caustic had been tapped. Some of it may be a by-product of the current ascendancy of Donald Trump and his blasts against “political correctness.” Not surprisingly, rightwing radio shock jocks have also stirred the pot.

For me, the most disheartening aspects of the protests has been the motto adopted by the defenders of the cross—“Go ahead, be offended.” Actually, the New Testament does contain numerous references to both Jesus and the Gospel giving offense and being stumbling blocks to some. But none of those biblical statements seem anywhere near as antagonistic or callous as “Go ahead, be offended.” It doesn’t feel like a Christian message. Maybe it isn’t intended to be.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Board of Education Board received a complaint about a small town high school choir encircling the audience while singing “In This Very Room” at a recent concert. For those of you not familiar with this selection, its lyrics includes lines such as “In this very room, there’s quite enough love for one like me…For Jesus, Lord Jesus, is in this very room.”concert

The Board held that this was acceptable because there was no evidence that the choir’s sole purpose was to promote Christianity, and choir members could opt out of the performance. Moreover, the board noted that nonreligious music and music from various ethnic traditions were also performed at the concert.

I have no trouble thinking that the Christian music of Bach and Handel is part of our cultural canon, and may be sung by public school choirs. “In This Very Room,” however, is totally different. It hardly rises to level of the cultural canon. Even more, the way that it was presented—holding hands while encircling the audience. Odd…inappropriate…disturbing?

I am trying mightily here not to come off as the detached elitist looking down my nose at these misguided dupes. How do I find the best in these impulses? In a strange way, it feels like Christianity is only tangentially related to either issue. That seems like a good thing.

It is easier for me to be generous to soppy high schoolers trying, however clumsily, to share the love of Jesus. The abrasive ire of the veteran defenders is harder to abide. In both cases, the attempt to defend Christian symbols is accomplished by draining those symbols of their Christian potency.

Those speaking on behalf of the veterans’ memorial often say things like, “The cross isn’t a religious symbol. It is a patriotic symbol for everyone.” On one hand they’re correct. The cross gravestone is just a realistic portrayal of most military graves. On the other hand, why does it take secularists and atheists to see the power and particularity of the cross, while patriot-Christians sense none of it?

Similarly, by understanding the singing of Jamaican or Mongolian music as counterbalancing the Christian message, those who want to share the love of Jesus, inadvertently end up equating Christianity with just one more folk tradition.

The choir and the protesters both seem to sense something is slipping away. They are quick to claim it is God and country, decency, and common sense. They are quick to claim the moral high ground, indignantly defending the honor of veterans, even the dispossessed, as well as good and patriotic people, and presumably Christians.

Privilege is a term that vexes the sort who wear “Go ahead, be offended” t-shirts in Knoxville. None of the actors in these dramas were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Yet even prairie plebeians have more privilege than they acknowledge. They can do what they want. They are the majority, even as demographics increasingly say otherwise. They assume access to public space. Their common sense is right. Their perspective is universal—or it ought to be, as it used to be.

Blind to their power and prerogatives, yet feeling so powerless, it may be no surprise that they assert themselves so stridently. Is it too much to hope that as we move farther and farther into post-Constantinian America, Christianity could increasingly be a bystander in these cultural skirmishes?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • “Is it too much to hope …?” In the immediate term, probably it is. Long term–perhaps some reason for hope. However, untangling nationalism and religion–recognizing the civil religion “water” in which we all swim is a very tough thing to imagine happening any time soon … Sigh.

  • David Timmer says:

    A plague on both their houses! Americans United should be more discerning about the cases it validates. The personal and temporary nature of the display (it’s made of plywood, people), plus the fact that the cross represents a military grave marker, should have indicated that the issue does not rise to the level of an “establishment of religion.” As usual, the extremists at both ends feed off each other, while the rest of us deal with the resulting manure-storm.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “They sense that something is slipping.” I think you’re right.

  • /svm says:

    Note similarity to, which has an entire section devoted to “cross controversy.”

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