"Now these are shirts!", Governor Kim Reynolds posted on her political Facebook page on August 12, next to a picture of herself with two Iowa State Fair-goers.
The governor could have told the tens of thousands of people who like or follow her Facebook page anything about this couple. She chose to praise their shirts, featuring "I stand for the flag, I kneel for the cross" in block capital letters around a soldier kneeling in front of a cross, with a large American flag in the background.
This slogan has become popular in conservative circles. An online search brings up dozens of t-shirts and other merchandise. The meme originated as a response to African American football players kneeling during the national anthem, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
As United Methodist Minister Morgan Guyton observed in a 2017 commentary about a similar image, "there’s nothing in this picture that resembles anything about Christianity." The flag, the man with the gun, and the cross are "being used idolatrously, that is they are being tokenized for the sake of increasing the power and status of the person tokenizing them." Furthermore, Guyton noted, "Any claim that Christianity is about standing and kneeling at the right time is complete blasphemy."
But let's set theological arguments aside for now. The governor has been at the fair almost every day and must have taken photos with many constituents. She shares only a few of them on her Facebook page each day. We don't know this couple's names, where they're from, what they like to do at the fair, or anything about them, other than their apparent belief that patriotic Americans should be practicing Christians who always stand before the flag.
The governor felt compelled to share this message with the world.
About 77 percent of Iowa adults identify as some kind of Christian, according to the Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study. Iowa's population was estimated at 3,156,145 in July 2018, of which 23.2 percent (around 732,000 people) are children under age 18. So about 1.87 million of the 2.42 million adults in Iowa are Christians.
The Pew Center estimates that 21 percent of Iowa adults have no religious affiliation (the "nones"), while about 1 percent identify with non-Christian faiths and 1 percent didn't know. That means around a half a million of Reynolds' constituents don't identify with any religion, while perhaps 25,000 follow some other religion.
A 2009 survey of U.S. military service members found roughly 66 percent of respondents claimed some form of Christian affiliation, while 25 percent were "nones" and the rest identified as humanists or with some minority religion. The authors noted, "American youth are more religiously diverse than their elders in terms of both nontraditional religions and nonbelieving, and religious diversity in the U.S. military reflects the youthful composition of the forces."
I haven't seen any studies specifically about religious affiliation among Iowa service members and veterans, but there must be thousands who do not identify as Christian. My Jewish father and many of his contemporaries served in the military.
Reynolds occasionally pays lip service to diversity and inclusion, but her joyous response to these t-shirts reveals that she mentally connects "American" with "Christian."
The governor has a news conference scheduled at the fairgrounds on August 13. Good questions for some reporter to ask would include, "Why did you find this shirt so compelling? Do you think people who don't always stand for the flag or kneel for the cross are less patriotic or not true Americans? What does your Facebook post convey to hundreds of thousands of Iowans who belong to non-Christian faiths or choose to practice no religion?"
UPDATE: I've gotten some lectures about this post, mostly from people who have never lived or worked in a setting where they were part of a small religious or racial minority. Some argued that I made a big deal out of nothing. Reynolds just liked the shirts and wasn't implying anything about "real Americans." Others who didn't care for the piece think people should kneel for the cross as a sign of respect for fallen soldiers.
For the white Christian readers who see the shirts as harmless, here's some more perspective I'd ask you to consider.
I have fairly deep family roots in Iowa. My father and grandmother were raised in Sioux City. During my childhood, I had lots of relatives there. I have no extended family in Iowa anymore. The older generation died in the 1990s and 2000s. All of my cousins who grew up in Sioux City settled and raised families out of state, in larger metro areas with larger Jewish populations.
My family's experience is not unique. The same trend has caused Jewish communities to shrink or disappear in small towns and cities all over the country. The older generation dies and the younger generation moves away. A bunch of Iowa synagogues that existed when I was born have since closed.
I left Iowa after high school and was gone for fifteen years, then returned when my husband and I were ready to raise a family. Iowa is a great place to raise kids, whatever your religion, but if you are part of a small religious minority, some things are different. Many Iowans don't know any Jews and assume everyone they meet is Christian.
When I was out with my small kids in December, well-meaning people would often say things like, "What are you asking Santa for this year?" I would sometimes say, "We celebrate Chanukah at our house." I realize their intentions were good. But I was trying to give my kids some kind of Jewish identity in a community that's less that 1 percent Jewish. They knew most people aren't Jewish (they could see Christmas decorations everywhere). But I didn't want them to feel left out or abnormal because we didn't observe the holiday most people were celebrating.
Some years my son had no Jewish classmates at his public school. Some of his Hebrew school contemporaries were the only Jewish kids in their entire public school. Being a small minority is not the same as being oppressed, but it can be isolating. That is one reason so many Jews who grew up in Iowa chose to raise their own families in larger cities.
Almost every Iowa elected official has been a practicing Christian for basically my whole life. The last Jew to represent part of this state in Congress was Ed Mezvinsky in the 1970s. To my knowledge, the last Jewish state legislator was Ralph Rosenberg, who left office during the mid-1990s. This is no big deal, it's part of living in Iowa. Again, I chose to come back here to raise a family.
So I have no problem with Iowa elected officials expressing their Christian faith. But it's different when the governor approvingly shares the message that America is about standing for the flag and kneeling for the cross.
I'm never kneeling for any cross. And no, you don't have to kneel for the cross to pay respect for fallen soldiers. And by the way, not all fallen soldiers are Christian. The U.S. military is not a Christian army, regardless of what many Iowans assume.
None of my four siblings had any interest in making their adult lives in Iowa. I'd like my children to see a future here, but many Jews do not find it appealing to live in a place dominated by Republicans who assume everyone (or everyone who matters) is Christian.
I doubt Reynolds harbors conscious prejudice against other religions, and I assume she meant no harm by sharing that photo. I'd guess it would never occur to her that the shirts send a message of exclusion to Iowans who are not Christian, or who support the Black Lives Matter movement. That's part of the problem.