“Lincoln himself, of course, was no enthusiast generally for millenialist imagery: for instance, his reply to the clergyman who told him that ‘God is on our side.” Lincoln said he knew nothing of the sort: he only hoped that we were on His. As Fisher Ames said at the beginning of the nineteenth century, ‘This country is too big for union.‘ It has got a great deal bigger since, and now is become unmanageable. No immanentizing of Christian symbols will restore unity.”—Russell Kirk to M.E. Bradford, June 20, 1970.
I felt as though I’d been hit in the stomach. I think every Birzer felt the same way.
Rather excited about the wonderful and potential weirdness of it all, we’d just stopped at a small point on our rather larger odyssey to all points West, the geographical center of the continental United States, Lebanon, Kansas.
Over the last several summers, my family has attempted some massive car (well, Honda van) trip West. Despite having six kids, my wife and I have succeeded. We tend to take three week vacations. Because a deer decided to commit suicide by challenging our Odyssey to a duel, the 2013 trip had to be broken into two parts. Pre deer suicide and post deer suicide.
Post deer suicide, we traveled from Hillsdale to Omaha to Red Cloud to Great Bend and, finally, to Maysville, Colorado.
Leaving Omaha, we decided to travel well past Lincoln, to visit Willa Cather’s very real mythic Nebraska town, Red Cloud, and, after, to the heart of it all, at least geographically, the dilapidated village of Lebanon, slightly south of the Nebraska border in north central Kansas, located on U.S. Highway 281.
I’d seen the spot on the map for the first 45 years of my life, and it had always carried some kind of mystical quality for me. Despite growing up just a few hours south and a bit east of Lebanon, I’d never visited there.
For a whole variety of reasons, family destinations were always east to Kansas City, west to Denver, or south to Dallas. Almost never did we go north, and, when we did, we went toward Des Moines, the Twin Cities, Chicago, and, ultimately, to South Bend.
A mile or so off the main highway, the geographical center of the 48 continental United States is a rather stunning spot. Sadly, a fixed American belief has it that Kansas is not an attractive state, at least physically. Anyone who has actually explored Kansas knows the opposite to be true. It’s neither unattractive nor flat. Indeed, rolling landscapes predominate, and big skies and equally big sunsets add a rather glorious aspect to the resource wealthy state. Perhaps, tellingly, Kansans are almost as proud of being Kansans as Texans are of being Texans. There exists a very quiet but sure strength in the average Kansan. As anyone who has ever met me knows, I’m more than a bit patriotic toward more home state.
So, the disgust and unease I felt in Lebanon probably was a bit personal as well.
Mentioned above, the geographical center is quite attractive as a spot. Turning off U.S. Highway 281, one heads West for about a mile on Kansas Highway 191. At the end of the highway, the spot sits. A small wind break of trees, a large American flag, a huge plaque, a couple of picnic benches, and a chapel. The chapel simply states “U.S. Center Chapel.” Ok, benign enough. But, upon entering the small building, outrage welled-up dramatically in each of the visiting Birzers. Simple enough, a few pews face a small lectern, holding up, not surprisingly, a bible. But, behind the lectern, upon the wall, is a Christian cross sitting atop a red-white-blue image of America.
What horrific heresy is this, I wondered aloud? My wife, kids, and I just stared for a moment.
My first mental image was from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta, the story of a fascist Britain employing Christianity as a means to justify an inhumane nationalism (well, ok, redundant, perhaps). At best, the image in the U.S. Center Chapel feels cheap and fascistic and, at worst, it seems downright sacrilegious. What a strange confluence of symbols—the saving grace of Jesus Christ on a Friday afternoon at the Hill of Skulls atop a tacky, gaudy Americanism.
My second thought was, well, here at this spot, the work of so many great and brilliant scholars—from Eric Voegelin to Ernest Tuveson to Richard Gamble—becomes manifest. Their warnings so painfully real. Here in innocent Kansas stood an unholy mixing of symbols, an adultery of the imagination, a civic religion. I hated to see something so evil in my beloved home state of Kansas.
The introductory quote from Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation comes to mind, a quote from our nasty, arrogant, progressive president, Woodrow Wilson, he who wanted to make the world safe for democracy: “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.”
Ugh. No wonder some many people around this globe—many good and many evil—despise us so much.
Sadly, this is America. Not all of it, of course, but the part that gave us unrelenting expansionism, brutalization of Indians (we visited the site of the Sand Creek Massacre two days later), and near ceaseless wars since 1946.
May God save America from her destiny.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.