Branson’s God and rural tourism attract patriotic Christians

BRANSON, Mo. (RNS) – A night at the Dolly Parton Stampede is a microcosm of life in this polarized United States.

For nearly two hours on a hot August night, a mob of capacity divided by North and South, Red and Blue, attempted to denigrate the other side, encouraged by leaders who referred to the other side by creative, G-rated terms of derision.

The tension escalated as two teams of riders dressed as cowboys and Wild West pioneers raced to show which side could ride the fastest, dodging obstacles and the occasional ring of fire – then chanting songs. songs or corn-pone jokes, while the audience cheered and devoured truckloads of Cornish hens, cookies and corn on the cob.

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At the end of the night, the American flag came out for a parade with a soundtrack by Dolly Parton, designed to remind everyone that no matter where they came from, they all bleed red, white and blue.

“There really is no North or South, East or West – because we are the United States of America,” said the show’s emcee, dressed in a star-spangled outfit. “United under one flag.

Then he asked the crowd, “Are you proud to be American? as Dolly Parton’s voice rose in “America the Beautiful.”

“America, America, God has poured out his grace upon you. And crown your wealth with brotherhood, from sea to sea.

Welcome to Branson, Missouri, where the holy trinity of Faith, Flag, and Family reigns supreme and an inspiring God and Country style of Christian nationalism serves as comfort food for the American soul. For more than a century, weary pilgrims have sought spiritual renewal and rest from the troubles of modern life here in the heart of the Ozarks – hoping to find a nostalgic vision of a beautiful America.

Tourists to St. Louis were first drawn to Branson as a refuge where they could hunt and fish in its wilderness. The area became filled with spiritual meaning after the publication in 1917 of “The Shepherd of the Hills”, a bestselling novel by Disciples of Christ minister Harold Bell Wright, a story of romance and redemption set in the hills of the Ozarks.

The popularity of “Shepherd of the Hills” eventually inspired an outdoor dinner theater version of the story, which remains a popular tourist attraction in Branson, although the show site has been updated with ziplines and the Mammoth Inspiration Tower, the tallest peak in the city.

Wright was a proponent of a conservative version of the social gospel, where a person’s loving actions on behalf of those in need matter more than their doctrine or their prayers, said Aaron Ketchell, author of ” Holy Hills of the Ozarks”, a history of religion. tourism in Branson.

Wright’s dream of a nostalgic, non-denominational and inspiring sacred space is still part of Branson’s soul, Ketchell said. While the message is Christian, he says, it is not doctrinaire or evangelical. Instead, the message is ambitious, focused on hope and love rather than conversion.

“The place is really built on a subtle transmission of Christian messages,” he said.

David Ott and his wife, Carol, a retired couple from Minneapolis, have visited — more than 60 times since 1980 — Silver Dollar City, a theme park owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, whose businesses include the Dolly Parton Stampede, and which operates “in a manner consistent with Christian values ​​and ethics.

“I could be a tour guide,” David Ott said as he walked back to the parking lot on a sunny day in late August.

The Otts, who are Baptists, had just spent the day at a major Southern gospel music festival that takes over the park in late August. Ott said the family and faith-based atmosphere — and the music — keeps them coming back.

“Everything about it is an atmosphere based on spirituality,” Ott said.

Ott said he and his wife often go to shows when they visit Branson. Among their favorites was Andy Williams’ show at the Moon River Theatre, which Williams opened in 1992 and performed there until his death in 2012. They are also fans of the Sight and Sound Theatre, where they saw all shows, including the originals. productions on Moses, Noah and Jesus, as well as the Christmas show.

Billboards for “Jesus” were everywhere in Branson in late August. The show, which debuted at the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2018 and opened in Branson in March 2021, has been seen by more than 4 million people.

Ott praised a scene from the show, which ended in early October, depicting the apostle Peter walking on water to meet Jesus.

“I don’t know how they do their special effects, but they’re fantastic,” he said.

The theatre’s original productions, based on biblical texts, feature song, dance, live animals, massive sets that move by remote-controlled robots and dazzling special effects – the Branson Theater features an LED video screen of 12 tons that cost over a million dollars to install.

A more modest Branson attraction is at the Freedom Encounter, which puts on a patriotic-themed show called “Freedom Journey” three times a week in a theater built for ’70s singer Tony Orlando, including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” has become the Veterans Day anthem.

A former pastor and genial church musician, Darren Myers hosts the show, which mixes religious quotes from the Founding Fathers, video interviews with modern immigrants and patriotic anthems. He is also the founder of Freedom Encounter – a non-profit organization that plans to turn the theater into a faith-based museum, which will include a space for “Freedom Journey”, as well as interactive exhibits, a bookstore and a playground for children. children modeled after a colonial village.

Myers left his church in 2015 to found an evangelistic ministry dedicated to traveling the country and “spreading the truth of the word of God and the truth of the founding of our country”, to help save the country from a “spiritual crisis,” according to the promotional video. for the ministry. After several years of performing the show “Freedom Journey” during Veterans Day week in Branson, Myers decided to found the museum.

“My angle has always been, we’re in a spiritual war and we have the truth,” he told RNS during an interview with Freedom Encounter. “And we have to tell the truth because the truth is what sets us free, and freedom won’t happen, you know, apart from the truth.”

Myers said he was not a Christian nationalist and did not believe the nation belonged only to Christians. But he argues that Christian ideas are essential for America.

Building an audience has been slow but steady work, Myers told RNS. Most audiences are small, but on a few occasions the show has attracted up to 200 people.

“That’s pretty typical for a new Branson show,” he said. “We are on the right path.”

While more outspoken Christian nationalism can be found in Branson, that message has its limits. Gary Emas, the 71-year-old owner of the Faith, Family and Freedom store on Highway 76 in Branson, said more MAGA-friendly businesses are not welcome in Branson.

“They’re all RINOS in Branson,” Emas said from the porch of his store, using a derisive nickname for Trump critics known as “Republicans in name only.” His porch was lined with pro-Trump flags, with slogans like “Let’s go, Brandon,” “Trump 2024” and “Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president.”

A former truck driver, Pentecostal pastor, healer, alternative medicine advocate and former popcorn seller, Emas said business has been tough since he opened the store. Few tourists seem keen to stop by the store, whose shelves are lined with pro-MAGA flags and messages.

During an interview, Emas was dressed in a red, white, and blue T-shirt that depicted the cross, a crown of thorns, and the American flag seized from Jesus’ hand.

Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab, said there has been a lot of pushback on the critique of Christian nationalism – the idea that America is at the base a nation for Christians – more conservative Christians who believe in what they see as a more inclusive vision of America.

“There’s really a much more common, almost moderate American way of thinking that talks more broadly about something like Judeo-Christian values ​​or the idea that, you know, why can’t we all just be , you know, good Americans and proud of the country and the flag,” Braunstein said.

But this more nostalgic view can also coexist with more extreme views of Christian nationalism, which claim that Christians are the only true Americans or that the country is less great because of pluralism or diversity, Braunstein said.

“Both views use religion as a marker of American belonging and power,” she said.

David Law, an Oregon native who moved to Branson after college to work at a nearby Christian camp, said the MAGA message doesn’t fit the image the town wants to portray. Law, who now works in the hospitality industry and is a volunteer leader in his church, said many of his fellow transplant recipients come to Branson out of nostalgia.

“I met several people from Oregon or California who said they wanted to go back to ‘good old America,'” he said over coffee and eggs at Billy Gail’s. , a popular restaurant.

Law said he used to think that kind of patriotism of God and country was harmless fiction — more like Harry Potter or Star Wars than faith based on the teachings of Jesus. He has seen this change in recent years.

“I saw it almost as fiction – a kind of fantasy world that never existed but people want to exist,” he said. “If it’s considered fiction, then I think it’s okay. It’s entertainment. The problem is, I don’t think a lot of people take it as entertainment. I think they take it very seriously.”

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This story was produced with a grant from the Stiefel Free Thought Foundation.

About Bobby F. Lopez

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