You’re fifty miles north of Chicago, driving along Sheridan Road through the main drag of Zion, Illinois. Lake Michigan is a few hundred yards to your east, beyond the pot-holed parking lots, Taco Bells, and boarded-up bodegas. More than 24,400 people call Zion home, and according to the 2010 census, median household income tallies just under $52,000 ($1,500 above the national level). It’s a squarely middle-class city, with the requisite parades, community theaters, and ice cream shops that make it the kind of down-home place Joe Christian has in mind when he talks about God’s America. That the city is called ‘Zion’ is not entirely coincidental.
Incorporated in 1902, Zion was originally the Utopian brainchild of John Alexander Dowie, a bearded, eccentric faith-healer and founder of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCAC), an early Pentecostal forebear (‘catholic’ meaning ‘universal’). Considering the ‘averageness’ of Zion in this context, the city likewise serves as an ideal analog for Joe Christian’s America, because it’s also difficult to ignore the blight beyond the main drag, where the cityscape is darkened with foreclosed homes, an empty, decommissioned nuclear power plant, and a grossly high percentage of people living in poverty (17.5%).
On one hand, you could say that God has left Zion. Supporting this is the 1992 civil suit filed by the Illinois Chapter of American Atheists that claimed the term ‘God Reigns’ and other religious imagery used on the Zion city seal violated the constitution. The Supreme Court agreed.
On the other hand—weighing Zion’s blighted averageness against the word ‘Zion’ as the apex of Judeo-Christian mythology—you could say that ‘God’ has been in Zion all along, but not in the way Dowie or Joe Christian insists.
In 1888, at age 41, John Alexander Dowie—a Scotsman by way of Australia—arrived in America. Originally ordained in the Congregationalist Church, a Protestant denomination, Dowie became an independent faith healer in 1879. His penchant for showmanship drew a big following—and a lot of flack. So when things got tense, Dowie looked to America, then swelling with immigration and impoverished, struggling families. There the audience would be receptive to his apocalyptic dramaturgy and opportunities for ‘healing’ would be ripe.
Alexis de Tocqueville once prophesied of the American man who is “full of a fanatical and almost wild enthusiasm,” and the sects arising that “endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness.” Dowie fit the type, brandishing the elaborate hellfire prophecies that often flare when centuries turn. Appropriately, he set his sights on Chicago, which was hosting the World Fair in 1893 and saw over 27 million in attendance. He set up a tabernacle across the street from the fair and thousands came to witness his fervent healing ceremonies
Having cultivated a large flock as such, Dowie founded the CCAC in 1896. As it gained power (capital), Dowie sought a place, a Utopia, where the church could grow free from the travails (or critical eye) of the heathen world. Chicago was a den of sin, but nearby land was still unsullied—and cheap. Dowie purchased a 6,600-acre empty parcel of land north of Chicago. He would call it Zion City.
Dowie planned the streets in a grid, like Chicago, and drew main roadways diagonally across the city to mimic the Union Jack. Residents—mostly CCAC members and some working-class folk hired to build Zion—were required to sign a ‘Zion City Lease,’ which forbade medical doctors, dancing, tan-colored shoes, and other vices. Around 5,000 people were living in the city in 1902 when it was incorporated, and CCAC membership had grown to 30,000 worldwide. Zion was its capital.
Of course, Dowie’s actions did not always coincide with his doctrine. He had a bully’s reputation and punished criticism. He lived in a mansion and had penchant for gourmet food, fine clothing, and expensive ‘missions.’ Due largely to of Zion’s conservative moral policies, businesses struggled to take root. The city was losing money, and Dowie wasn’t helping. He was voted out of leadership in 1905 and with health fast declining, he died from a stroke in 1907 at the age of 60.
Zion survived Dowie, as did the CCAC, which is still headquartered there, operating as the Christ Community Church. Though membership has dwindled to 3,000, Zion itself grew throughout the 20th century, due to the suburban expansion and industry growth in the surrounding area. Now, with the few northeastern Illinois industry steadfasts having been outsourced or declared bankrupt, the local economy is depressed, employment is low, and despite having once fought to be ‘set apart,’ Zion is indistinguishable from its neighbors.
Within the space of a century, whatever lofty idealism went into the manufacture of Zion has been subsumed by the same steady flow of sprawl and abstract economic interests ultimately regulating all forms of contemporary material idealism. Joe Christian believes this is because God has been replaced by the Golden Calf of Greed. It’s what wrecked Zion, after all. This, Joe says, is the problem with America; it’s a Christian nation, built on Providence and corrupted by bad intentions.
But what if the Christian idea fosters its own malicious intention? What if we are indeed a ‘Christian Nation,’ but not in the way Joe means? That is, Joe’s Christ is a fat stack of Benjamins, but he doesn’t know it (and sometimes, neither do his critics). America pioneered Capitalism in its present form, and as Max Weber famously argues, its ethos is inseparable from the Protestant position. The God of the Christian Nation is the Golden Calf of Greed, but it’s hard to tell when the Calf is driving a Land Rover with a little white Ichthys sticker shimmering over the license plate.
Joe looks at the present condition of America and bids all good Christians to pray. What Joe doesn’t see is that a place like Zion, Illinois—with its blight, depression, and history of failure—is a picture of his God’s answer.
[This was an essay I wrote in early 2013 for entry in the Freedom From Religion Foundation Brian Bolton Mature Grad Student Essay Contest.]