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Would Cain Drive a Dodge?

Some people watch the Super Bowl for the ads. I’m not one of them, but I was struck by this spot for Dodge trucks. I watched the game at a party in the heart of hipster Brooklyn. No one in the room cared much about farmers or trucks. But the room fell silent when the ad came on.

That’s an impressive feat of advertising. But I couldn’t help noticing how silly the non-commercial message was. Here is the script, which is excerpted from a monologue by the folksy broadcaster Paul Harvey:

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the field, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt and watch it die, then dry his eyes and say,’Maybe next year,’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from an ash tree, shoe a horse with hunk of car tire, who can make a harness out hay wire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. Who, during planting time and harvest season will finish his 40-hour week by Tuesday noon and then, paining from tractor back, put in another 72 hours.” So God made the farmer.

God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to yean lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-comb pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the leg of a meadowlark.”

It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed, and brake, and disk, and plow, and plant, and tie the fleece and strain the milk, . Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft, strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh, and then sigh and then reply with smiling eyes when his son says that he wants to spend his life doing what Dad does. “So God made a farmer.”

Several commenters have noted the distance between this vision and the reality of industrial agriculture. Some have also pointed out that the ad shows only white and black faces, even though Hispanics make up the vast majority of America’s farmer workers.

But it’s also worth noting, as the Canadian journalist Jeet Heer (@heerjeet) observed on Twitter, what lousy theology the ad articulates. According to the Bible, the first farmer wasn’t a pious caretaker of God’s creation. Rather it was Cain, who is best known for killing his brother.

It’s not clear why God preferred the shepherd Abel’s offering, provoking Cain’s murderous envy. But it does appear that the labor of farming is a punishment for Cain’s crime. Here’s how God describes the condition of the farmer: “When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” (Genesis 4:12). That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Passages in Leviticus and the prophetic books imply a more favorable divine attitude toward agriculture. But nothing in either Testament, as far as I’m aware, asserts a comprehensive superiority of farming over pastoral or urban styles of life. Indeed, Cain himself was the founder of the first city, which he named for his son Enoch. In the Bible, town and country aren’t poles of piety and vice, but consequences of the same sin.

This misreading of Scripture didn’t interfere with the ad’s success. That’s because, like other products designed to flatter our populist instincts, it has little to with the Biblical sources whose authority it claims. Rather, “God Made a Farmer” reflects the blend of American civil religion, Jeffersonian idealism, and corporate capitalism that has long defined America’s public culture. The power of the ad suggests the formula still sells, even to consumers who regard themselves as too sophisticated for such a cloying brew.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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