BY BOB SMITANA
BRANSON, Mo. (RNS) – A Night at the Dolly Parton Stampede is a microcosm of life in this polarized United States.
For almost two hours on a hot August night, a crowd divided into North and South, Red and Blue tried to drown out the other side, goaded by leaders who used creative, G-rated taunts to refer to the other side.
The tension mounted as two teams of horsemen dressed as cowboys and pioneers of the Wild West went head-to-head to show which side could ride the fastest, dodging obstacles and the occasional ring of fire — then breaking into song or corn-pone jokes throughout the audience cheered and gobbled up Cornish chickens, biscuits and corn on the cob by the truckload.
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At the end of the night, the American flag came out for a parade with a soundtrack written by Dolly Parton to remind everyone that no matter where they come 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 host, who was clad in a star-studded outfit. “United under one flag.”
He then asked the crowd, “Are you proud to be American?” as Dolly Parton’s voice rose in “America the Beautiful.”
“America, America, God is pouring out His grace on you. And crown your good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”
Welcome to Branson, Missouri, where the holy trinity of faith, flag and family reigns supreme and where an inspiring God-and-country style of Christian nationalism comforts the American soul. For more than a century, weary pilgrims have sought spiritual renewal and respite from the difficulties of modern life here in the heart of the Ozarks, hoping to find a nostalgic vision of a beautiful America.
St. Louis tourists were first drawn to Branson as a haven where they could hunt and fish in its pristine wilderness. The area became popular following the publication in 1917 of The Shepherd of the Hills, a best-selling novel by Disciples of Christ minister Harold Bell Wright, a tale of romance and redemption set in the hills of the Ozarks spiritual meaning.
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, though the show’s setting has been updated with zip lines and the mammoth Inspiration Tower, the tallest became point in town.
Wright was a proponent of a conservative version of the social gospel in which a person’s loving acts on behalf of those in need count for more than their teaching or prayers, said Aaron Ketchell, author of “Holy Hills of the Ozarks,” a religious history of tourism in Branson .
Wright’s dream of a nostalgic, nondenominational, inspirational sacred place remains part of Branson’s soul, Ketchell said. While the message is Christian, he said, it is not doctrinal or evangelistic. Instead, the message is ambitious and focuses 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 Minneapolis couple, have visited — more than 60 times since 1980 — Silver Dollar City, a theme park owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, whose business includes the Dolly Parton Stampede and which “in a way compatible with Christian values and ethics.”
“I could be a tour guide,” said David Ott as he rode the tram back to the car park on a sunny day in late August.
The Otts, who are Baptists, had just spent the day at a major Southern Gospel music festival taking over the park in late August. Ott said the family and faith-friendly atmosphere — and the music — keeps her coming back.
“Everything there has a spiritual vibe,” Ott said.
Ott said he and his wife often went to shows when visiting Branson. One of her favorites was the Andy Williams show at the Moon River Theater, which Williams opened in 1992 and where he performed until his death in 2012. They are also fans of the Sight and Sound Theater where they have seen every show including the original shows Moses, Noah and Jesus productions and the Christmas show.
Billboards for “Jesus” were seen all over Branson in late August. The show, which debuted in 2018 at the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and opened in Branson in March 2021, has been seen by more than 4 million people.
Ott gushed about a scene on the show, which ended in early October, showing the apostle Peter stepping out onto the water to meet Jesus.
“I don’t know how they do their special effects, but they’re fantastic,” he said.
The theater’s original productions, based on biblical texts, include song, dance, live animals, huge sets moved by remote-controlled robots, and dazzling special effects – the Branson Theater features a 12-ton LED video wall that covers more than cost a million dollars to install.
A more modest Branson attraction can be found at the Freedom Encounter, which hosts a three-weekly patriotic show called “Freedom Journey” in a theater built for ’70s singer Tony Orlando, whose “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree’ hit has become a Veteran’s Day anthem.
Darren Myers, a genius former pastor and church musician, hosts the show, which weaves together faith-based quotes from the Founding Fathers, video interviews with modern-day immigrants, and patriotic hymns. He is also the founder of Freedom Encounter – a non-profit organization that plans to convert the theater into a faith-based museum that will include a “Freedom Journey” space, as well as interactive exhibits, a bookstore and a children’s play area modeled after a colonial village.
Myers left his church in 2015 to start an evangelistic ministry dedicated to touring the country and “spreading the truth of God’s Word and the truth of our country’s founding” to save the country from “a spiritual crisis.” to save, 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 start the museum.
“My perspective has always been that we’re in a spiritual war and we have the truth,” he told RNS during an interview with Freedom Encounter. “And we must tell the truth, for the truth makes us free, and freedom will not come apart from the truth.”
Myers said he is not a Christian nationalist and does not believe the nation belongs only to Christians. But he argues that Christian ideas are essential to America.
Building an audience was slow but steady work, Myers told RNS. Most viewers are small, but on a few occasions the show has drawn up to 200 people.
“That’s pretty typical for a new Branson show,” he said. “We are on the right path.”
While more insistent Christian nationalism can be found in Branson, this message has its limitations. 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 his store’s porch, 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 Savior, Trump Is My President.”
A former truck driver, Pentecostal pastor, faith healer, alternative medicine advocate and former popcorn seller, Emas said business has been difficult since the store opened. Few tourists seem enthusiastic about stopping by the store, whose shelves are lined with flags and pro-MAGA messages.
During an interview, Emas wore a red, white, and blue T-shirt with the cross, crown of thorns, and American flag held in Jesus’ hand.
Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and director of the Meanings of Democracy laboratory, said there has been much opposition to criticism of Christian nationalism – the idea that America is, at heart, a nation for Christians – by more conservative Christians who believe in what they see as a larger vision of America.
“There’s really a much more common and almost moderate-seeming way of thinking about the United States that talks more broadly about something like Judeo-Christian values or the idea of why we can’t all just be you, you know, good Americans and proud of the country and the flag,” said Braunstein.
But this more nostalgic view can also coexist with more extreme views of Christian nationalism, which asserts 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 sign 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 MAGA’s message doesn’t fit the image the city wants to present. Law, who now works in the hospitality industry and is a volunteer leader at his church, said many of his transplant fellows come to Branson out of nostalgia.
“I’ve 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 popular Billy Gail’s.
Law said he always believed that kind of god and country patriotism was harmless fiction — more like Harry Potter or Star Wars than a belief based on the teachings of Jesus. He has seen this change in recent years.
“I thought of it almost as fiction – a kind of make-believe world that never existed, but people want to exist,” he said. “If it’s considered fiction, then I’m fine with it. It’s entertainment. The problem is, I don’t think a lot of people see it as entertainment. I think they take it very seriously.”
This story was produced with a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.