Nashville’s entangled ‘Prayer Trade’ is a warning to the rest of the country
(RNS) — The poet Claudia Rankine has an essential admonition for people who wish to exercise moral responsibility in the face of escalating threats to public safety: “If you don’t name what’s happening, everyone can pretend it’s not happening.”
I speak from Nashville where there’s always an awful lot happening. We house HCA Healthcare, the Country Music Association, Daily Wire Entertainment, professional sports franchises, universities, and what I refer to as the “Prayer Trade.”
By Prayer Trade, I refer to the marketing of religious faith. In Nashville, it’s all a mix. Holding these cultures and organizations as somehow magically separate makes it harder to name what’s happening — which makes it easy to pretend what’s happening isn’t happening.
The Prayer Trade is very obviously entangled in the life of Tennessee’s capital city and is therefore a powerful driver in our state’s politics. “God,” we might say, is big business and big politics, too, in Nashville.
To avert our gaze from the fact of it or to avoid publicly acknowledging long-ago-forged alliances — for fear of being tagged as divisive or partisan — is to let bad faith actors dictate the terms of our discourse and the direction of our lives.
I have an example. Bill Lee won the governor’s race in 2018 with the backing of Nashville musicians Ricky Skaggs, Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman.
Since then, Skaggs has pushed the Big Lie.
Smith joined Skaggs and worship-singer-turned-political-gadfly Sean Feucht for an unmasked worship rally at the Lincoln Memorial at the peak of the COVID pandemic.
And Steven Curtis Chapman’s music has served as a centerpiece in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign of Big Lie proponent Doug Mastriano.
Association is currency. How we spend it and how we get spent matters. To highlight, examine and pose questions about these men’s political moves will draw unwelcome attention to their public witness and their moral legacies, yes. But this is necessary due diligence — into the decisions, the messy alliances and the conservative Christian nationalistic milieu that is taking over in Tennessee and beyond.
Consider Governor Bill Lee’s efforts to accord Hillsdale College, a Michigan-based private Christian college, power over public education in Tennessee. Hillsdale ultimately backed out, due to “fear of rejection,” according to some lawmakers.
A narrow escape, but the affiliation must still be examined. Hillsdale’s president, Larry Arnn, has his feet in the Claremont Institute (which includes Senior Fellow John Eastman who recently pled the fifth in the Jan. 6 hearings), and conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. Arnn also recently appeared at one of Salem Media’s Charlie Kirk TPUSA faith events. Hillsdale also published and pushes the 1776 Curriculum and minimizes (often denying outright) the insurrection.
That’s an awful lot of Christian nationalism.
We can perhaps be forgiven for rubbing our eyes in disbelief when, after a quick Google search, we discover Pat Sajak chairs the board of trustees at Hillsdale. Does that mean promotional consideration of Christian nationalism is provided by “Wheel of Fortune”? Let the viewer decide.
It gets worse. Hillsdale is regularly promoted on Daily Wire, the proudly “right of center” multimedia brainchild of Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing. When Governor Lee took to Twitter to welcome Daily Wire and Shapiro to Nashville on our governor’s office Twitter account, an ugly circle of ideological self-enrichment was made more publicly visible.
As Nashvillians committed to public safety have discovered, Daily Wire content is centered on weaponized rancor and resentment.
On multiple channels, Daily Wire personality Matt Walsh recently targeted Vanderbilt University Medical Center over medical treatment offered to children seeking gender transition. The momentum of his campaign landed his story on Tucker Carlson (who broadcast the faces of VUMC trustees on the screen).
Senator Marsha Blackburn posted a selfie with Walsh on her U.S. Senate Twitter account, telling people to “stay tuned for more tomorrow about how puberty blockers are being used on children.”
Senator Blackburn and Matt Walsh going to a $400-per-person dinner in Washington DC last night to “mercilessly mock” marginalized people and strategize on how to criminalize healthcare for transgender children is certainly a story, but not one where they’re the heroes. pic.twitter.com/M82n2fNHkF
— Ari Drennen (@AriDrennen) September 22, 2022
Amid the pressure from Republican lawmakers, Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced it’s pausing gender-affirmation surgeries.
That places responsibility for the extension of Daily Wire’s disinformation campaign (again) with the people of Tennessee (Blackburn’s constituents).
That’s a lot to hold in our heads and hearts, but if we don’t name the complicated, interlocking incitements to violence being carried out by our elected officials and their famous enablers, it’s easier to keep pretending what’s happening isn’t happening. Reader, I’m sorry to say there’s more.
Megan Basham, who’s both a Daily Wire reporter and a Claremont fellow, recently hopped on Twitter to ding Scott Sauls, author and pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, in the wake of a (seemingly unrelated) PayPal kerfuffle:
Pretty wild to see this take the same day news leaks that PayPal was considering of fining their customers for wrongthink. Is it partisanship or power we’re after when we don’t want a society where we have to pay $2500 for having views the ruling class doesn’t like? https://t.co/Ghenepsevm
— Megan Basham (@megbasham) October 9, 2022
Plot twist: Marsha Blackburn has been a congregant of Christ Presbyterian Church for years. In short, Marsha Blackburn is now promoting (and cheering with) a content provider that’s targeting her own pastor. Yes, it’s weird. That doesn’t mean these events aren’t occurring before our very eyes.
Situated in Nashville myself (Daily Wire is in Berry Hill, walking distance from my own haunts), I joined others in querying Basham about these moves “on Twitter” as the saying goes. The replies were intriguing:
Oh, and by and large DW pays no attention whatsoever to my evangelical tweeting.
— Megan Basham (@megbasham) October 11, 2022
I don’t know what counts as “evangelical tweeting,” but, here again, the suggestion that some tweets are evangelical or religious or political or merely self-promotional does not serve the work of seeing or thinking clearly in cities like Nashville, states like Tennessee or scenes like the one we call America. Our preferred divides dissolve upon contact with what’s actually happening.
What’s happening in Tennessee is also happening in other states. We see the pressure points. We need to name them, too.
To not name what’s happening is to fall for the bystander effect and to silently play along with disgraceful arrangements normalized through moral inertia.
To name what’s happening is to take up the task of civic courage, to describe our problems properly, to see our skin is already in the game, to start acting like it. To ignore the publicly visible game plan playing out in and upon our lives and the lives of others is to prove catastrophically useful in the strategies of abusive people.
There are doubtless times when it’s healthy and helpful to conceive oneself as someone around whom things randomly happen. But there are other times when accepting that self-conception means I’ve succumbed to a kind of moral cowardice and am on the verge of disgracing and debasing myself. Being at all acquainted with my own moral power means knowing the difference and acting upon this knowledge.
Perhaps Nashville is like other American cities except more so and perhaps more obviously religiously fraught. Knowing and responding thoughtfully to what’s happening around us is the human assignment. Understanding that assignment, distinguishing light from darkness, is an everyday do-over scenario full of dangers and righteous possibilities. Stay safe, everyone.
(David Dark is the author of several books, including Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. He teaches at the Tennessee Prison for Women and Belmont University. His Twitter handle is @DavidDark. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)