Rachel Heath is a 2022-23 Graduate Student Fellow from the Graduate Department of Religion.
In the fourth quarter of the 2021 Superbowl, a commercial sponsored by Jeep called “The Middle” aired. It begins with a voiceover from Bruce Springsteen: “There’s a chapel in Kansas. Standing on the exact center of the lower-48. It never closes. All are welcome, to come meet here: in the middle.”1 The phrase “come meet here” is juxtaposed with the visual of a wall, inside a chapel building, where a wooden cut-out of the geographical United States hangs conspicuously behind the pulpit. Candles adorn the corner to the left. The pattern of a United States flag is emblazoned across the cut-out, with a white cross superimposed across the center. The voiceover continues: “We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground.” The voiceover continues as Springsteen himself visits the chapel to light a candle. A few scenes later, we are shown the chapel at sunset, crowned by a steeple and a cross, with Springsteen’s silhouette.
The commercial is awash with emotion: it is meant to make us feel that we need each other, that we need unity, not division. Differences that divide Americans can be resolved in the middle, as long as we can get there. The narrative arc tugs at the heart-strings and hearkens to a nostalgic, unified American past, present, and future. What is left unspoken, however, is that Christian imagery and symbols permeate this vision of political unity, even though the term “Christian” is not used.
Religious Diversity, Christian Normativity
Whether or not there’s an actual Christian chapel in the geographical center of the United States that inspired Jeep’s commercial seems beside the point. The question I want to ask, instead, is what it means that a Christian space is envisaged as the “common ground” or middle ground where all are welcome to meet. Why isn’t Bruce Springsteen visiting a gurdwara, synagogue, or mosque in the commercial? What public feelings are being evoked or inculcated by imagining a Christian space as the center? How are Christians supposed to feel about the message of the commercial? And how should those from traditions beyond Christianity feel, in response?
The Jeep commercial is a cultural phenomenon, not necessarily a religious or theological statement. Yet if we value religious diversity not just rhetorically, but in practice, then these questions are worth exploring. In her book White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, Khyati Y. Joshi, a Hindu-American scholar and educator, evaluates how implicit Christian presuppositions function to perpetuate Christian privilege and notions of superiority in a culture that is religiously plural. Joshi states:
“Christianity’s normative power in US culture reflects the assumption by Christians that their own belief system is universal, or ought to be rendered universal without question or critique…a norm can be expressed in violence or expressions of prejudice, but more often it exists simply as one group’s ideas or characteristics coming to be understood as universal, true, and ordinary.”2
Christian privilege includes never questioning why Christmas is a national holiday or why ‘omnivore’ is typically assumed to the lowest common denominator for communal meals. And this failure to question Christian privilege catalyzes the notion that what is Christian and what is normal are parallel, creating and constructing an artifice of Christian supremacy.3
As someone studying Christian theologies from within, I take Joshi’s cultural evaluation a step further by asking how Christian imaginative constructs (or, Christian theology) might be implicated in generating these assumptions of Christian normativity, privilege, and superiority in relationship with other religious traditions. Using the affect theory of Sara Ahmed, in my dissertation I contend that these notions of Christians superiority are affectually entangled in the ways that Christians imagine both divinity and the world, generating universal feelings that circulate. The question, then, is not whether these feelings (of Christian superiority and normativity) exist, but how to counteract them if the very constructs Christians might use to imagine or feel otherwise could be already tainted by these assumptions. If common ground is rhetorically neutral but implicitly Christian, where can we go from this acknowledgement if the tools Christians use to construct theology are… potentially faulty?
Religion and religious practice matter to people; this means that our understandings of religious difference matter, too. My research, I hope, can contribute to conversations that promote critical self-reflection for those from Christian traditions, while at the same time, help lay the groundwork for religiously plural paradigms, feelings, and practices that are decentered and conscientious.
What could “common ground” look like if it’s not envisioned as Christian chapel in the geographical center of the United States? What would this ground feel like? These are questions I hope we can keep asking.
1 The permanent sponsored link to this commercial is not included here because Jeep took down the commercial in the week after the Superbowl took place. This action was not related to criticism of the ad’s centering of Christianity, but in light of the report that Springsteen had been arrested for a DWI at a National Park in November 2020, an unfortunate revelation given that “the ad [features] Springsteen driving in Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska” (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/jeep-bruce-springsteen-super-bowl-ad-dwi-1126740/). As recorded by Rolling Stone, a Jeep spokesperson commented, even with the disappointing report of Springsteen’s arrest, that the commercial’s “message of community and unity is as relevant as ever.” A non-sponsored link to the commercial can be found here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gPOPLrUfyw).
2 Khyati Y. Joshi, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 22.
3 Joshi, 63
Rachel A. Heath is a PhD candidate in religion, specializing in Christian theologies. Her research explores the intersections of theories of multiplicity, queer and feminist thought, affect theory, and interfaith praxis in U.S. contexts. She has previously published on themes of multiple religious belonging and feminist approaches to multifaith chaplaincy. During the 2021-2022 academic year, she had the honor of serving as a Visiting Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at Vanderbilt. She holds an M.A. in Religion from Vanderbilt and an M.Div. from Yale University. When not writing her dissertation, she is an avid runner and occasional poet who loves spending time under the trees in Percy Warner Park.