Larry Norman’s ‘Great American Novel’ is a classic Christian song, prophetically ahead of its time in its articulation of the United States’ claim that Christian values are at the centre of its national life, whilst a litany of truths about power structures and daily life in the country so plainly contradicted that. The chorus of the song railed that:
‘And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.’
I wonder what Larry would write and sing today, given the ever increasing and extreme ways that God is dishonoured in the US by the blasphemous fusing of Christianity and American exceptionalism, the cross of Jesus and the Stars and Stripes merged in the minds of many as two great and righteous allegiances that have become impossible to separate.
In our own country the sense of national unity and ‘rallying around the flag’ that coronavirus brought about has been torn apart in the last 72 hours, the culture wars returning with a vengeance. At the centre of the storm is Dominic Cummings, our Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor, to some a maverick genius whose political alchemy delivered both Brexit and an 80-seat majority to Boris Johnson, to others a pantomime villain famed for his personal aggression, secrecy and contempt for rank and file MPs and civil servants.
At the heart of the story of his trip to Durham is ‘one rule for one, one rule for another’ hypocrisy, with thousands of people missing funerals or the chance to say goodbye to dying friends and relatives, or not yet seeing newborn grandchildren, or simply suffering the aggregated erosion of the pressure weeks of lockdown has imposed on their mental health, whilst a man who helped set the rules apparently ignored them.
Cummings claims his interpretation of the lockdown rules was correct even though many others completely disagree. These include the former chief constable of Durham police who told the Guardian: “It is clear he has broken the rules. It could not be clearer. I cannot think of a worse example of a breach of the lockdown rules.”
On Sunday afternoon Cummings waded through a mass of journalists door-stepping his house and drove off for a lengthy meeting with the Prime Minister at Downing Street. As always he was defying convention, heading to the UK’s most prestigious address in a casual t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, carrying not a briefcase but a black bin bag. But whatever statement that scruffiness is meant to make, something else was much more interesting about his appearance. Look closely at the lanyard to which his Downing Street pass was attached and you could see the following words on the blue ribbon: ‘In God we trust.’
I wonder what those words mean. The most obvious interpretation is that they’re famously associated with US dollar bills, that those on the right wing of politics attach great weight to ideals of personal freedom and liberty, and in that they’re enormously influenced by American politics where those values are close to sacred.
Could they mean something more? I’ve read a number of profiles of Dominic Cummings over the last couple of years and I can’t recall any mention of personal Christian faith in them. Patrick Wintour, writing in the Guardian, says “Anna Karenina, maths and Bismarck are his three obsessions,” but I recognise we can’t judge or make windows into a man’s soul.
And yet. After the events of this last weekend, Larry Norman’s tune turns through my head and I think ‘And your lanyard says in God we trust...’ If we’re going to wear lanyards that say that please let’s show it means something by letting us see some true Christian fruitfulness at the heart of our national life. Compassion that doesn’t demonise those forced to rely on benefits. Recognition that something is broken in our nation when use of food banks has become so commonplace and acceptable. Common decency that doesn’t even contemplate surcharges on overseas NHS workers. An acknowledgment that truthfulness matters. The humility that says ‘I put my hands up, I did something wrong’, however hard that might be.
But if ‘your lanyard says in God we trust’ is just a tribute to America and libertarian politics, then please ditch it now, because it dishonours a Holy God whose divine heart burns with passion for righteousness. God who won’t be mocked and is to be honoured rather than spun, and worshiped rather than played. God who longs for justice and mercy way more than he longs for lanyards and slogans.
Colin Neill is a Contemporary Christianity Board Member.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.