Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
A conservative church is not where you might expect to see a showing of “Hamilton,” the award-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that tells the life story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop, R&B and soul music. But this weekend, a church in McAllen, Texas, called The Door performed the show – with some right-wing tinkering. The actors reportedly mentioned Jesus and Christianity throughout, and a video shows that the performance also featured a sermon comparing homosexuality to drug addiction and deeming it a sin.
“He knows exactly what you’ve gone through,” Pastor Victor Lopez told the audience. “You’ve gone through maybe broken marriages. Maybe you struggle with alcohol, with drugs – with homosexuality – maybe you struggle with other things in life, your finances, whatever, God can help you tonight. He wants to forgive you for your sins.”
Part of this is just cheesy. “Hamilton,” delightful as it is, debuted in2015 and is not exactly on the cutting edge of pop culture trends in 2022. And the tried-and-true easiest way to make a piece of pop culture wildly uncool is to co-opt it for a Sunday sermon. It’s no surprise that a spokesperson for Broadway production responded in a statement to CNN that “‘Hamilton’ does not grant amateur or professional licenses for any stage productions and did not grant one to The Door Church.” It must be frustrating and enraging for the many artists who wrote, produced and acted in Hamilton to see their work used without permission or compensation and, most appallingly, in the service of homophobia, which they have collectively made clear they stand against.
But this seemingly small story – a Texas church perverting a musical that became a progressive classic – speaks to a larger dynamic of the American right, and particularly Christian conservatives, repeatedly rewriting US history to serve their ends and confirm their biases.
Take the ubiquitous historical claim by conservatives that the US is a Christian (or, as is more popular now, a “Judeo-Christian”) nation. Some far-right conservatives now go as far as to claim the mantle of Christian nationalism. In reality, the role of religion in society, law and politics was debated and disputed in the earliest days of the United States. Christianity is not mentioned in the Constitution; rather, the founders were clear that the state should not endorse any religion over another, and should let citizens practice their religions freely.
It should also be noted that many Southern Christians did support slavery – and many went to war to maintain what one Baptist minister called “an institution of God.” The Southern Baptist Convention was founded because Southern Baptist slaveholders wanted to maintain the ability to enslave other human beings, so long as those human beings were African, a group they deemed fundamentally inferior to whites. Many abolitionists, in turn, were also motivated by their Christian faith, and many African Americans adopted Christianity and reclaimed the liberatory messages of the Bible as a counter to the many passages White slavery proponents used to justify the institution.
Today, many conservatives obscure this history, even while they also continue to push the lie that the Civil War was less about slavery than states’ rights. Textbooks in many schools, particularly those in former Confederate states, continue to disseminate this flatly false propaganda. Republicans continue to defend Confederate monuments as part of US history, even as those monuments were specifically erected long after the Civil War to retroactively glorify the slaveholding South and Confederate traitors who went to war to defend it. And the Confederate flag is a fixture at rallies for former President Donald Trump – and Trump himself has said that the flag simply “represents the south” and that “When people proudly had their Confederate flags they’re not talking about racism.”
This whitewashing is perhaps most acutely felt in public schools. Oklahoma Republicans recently tried to ban the historically accurate teaching of slavery in a bill barring educators from teaching students that one racial group was the “victim” of slavery. The truth, of course, is that in the US, one racial group was the victim of slavery: Africans brought over to be enslaved by White slaveholders. Other states have banned discussion of racism as systemic, which makes it pretty tough to teach about slavery, which wasn’t just an interpersonal choice but part of a vast economic, political and social system enabled by law.
These false narratives about America’s founding and the reality of slavery have been widely adopted and disseminated by the Republican Party, Christian conservatives and the American right more broadly. They continue to pervert our politics, fuel discord and encourage extremism – not to mention creating a historically ignorant but sharply ideological populace.
A country that does not agree on the basic facts of its own history is tough to hold together.
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These efforts to turn our nation’s complex past into simplistic pieces of pro-Christian nationalist propaganda are wide-reaching, and they extend from the highest echelons of government into our children’s classrooms and public parks. And we see these propaganda efforts in churches, too – including this weekend in McAllen, Texas.
For those of us who are not the creators of or actors in “Hamilton,” it is indeed a small thing, hosting an unauthorized performance of the show. But when that performance is used as one more mechanism to propagandize instead of to educate, and to inject a bigoted ideology into a piece of art that stood for the opposite, it’s not just a small thing – it’s instead a microcosm of a much larger tragedy in motion, with potentially dire consequences.