We hear many battle metaphors and images on television these days. We are fighting the coronavirus and relying on health care heroes to do so. We also have experienced an invasion by this virus. We are fighting an invisible enemy. We are reminded that we have a wartime president and that those who agree with him are called warriors; they are on the front line of this struggle.
We Americans have always seen ourselves as competitors, and we do love to win — or even to claim victory when we lose, as in Vietnam and Iraq, for example.
We are not alone in this, of course. All nations talk this way; it is called nationalism. It’s just that, unlike Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, we have avoided the consequences of such excessive nationalism until now. However, now with COVID-19, we face a challenge that cannot be deterred with brave words or industrial-strength armies. We may have to redefine terms like “winning” and “losing”.
My favorite religious author, the Franciscan Richard Rohr, made the following comment in a book published last year: “At this point, at least in the United States, it appears that our cultural meaning has ... shrunk down to this: It is all about winning. Then, once you win, it is all about consuming. I can discern no other underlying philosophy in the practical order of American life today. Of itself, such a world view cannot feed the soul very well or very long, much less provide meaning and encouragement, or engender love or community.”
This comment caught my attention because it captures the mood of President Trump and his supporters today, with one important modification. What we hear from the federal government today is not that we must beat the virus and then consume, but that we will win the war against COVID-19 by consuming.
Open the country for businesses and public gatherings of all sorts, we are told by angry protesters who feel “tread upon,” and do this even without using masks to protect others if we happen to be unknowingly carrying the virus. It may cause a few extra illnesses and deaths, but we will win in the end by rebuilding our economy and putting Americans back to work.
By resuming our consuming, we will become great again and the envy of the world because of our material wealth. After all, this is WAR, and the person who dies with the most toys (or cars or houses or stock market gains) wins. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.)
And furthermore, what is all this blather about “feeding our souls” or “engendering love or building community” anyway? The president has a war and an election to win, after all, and we can worry about feeding, loving, or building community once we reestablish our greatness as Americans.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, military chaplain Howell Forgy, a former pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Murray, became famous for offering the following prayer: “Praise the Lord, pass the ammunition.” Sixty years later, President George W. Bush told us to “go shopping” as a way of recovering from the 9-11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
It is not unusual or wrong to ask for God’s help in a military crisis or to link military affairs with consumer affairs. What is unusual and unworthy of Americans is to salute “the almighty dollar” at the top of our flag pole while people are dying at its foot.
It might be possible to reopen our economy without enlarging our cemeteries or crematoria. Since we are going back to work, regardless of the danger, I hope that the virus will be of a shorter duration than the scientists fear. Time will tell. However, if the only way we can “recover” is over the dead bodies of our fellow citizens, might it be time to rethink our values or even rename the God we really worship?
Ken Wolf is a Democrat and a retired Murray State University history professor. He speaks here as an individual and not as a representative of either of these organizations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.