Jeff Steele Regrets “Mean-Spirited” We Want America Back Rallies

BBC Documentary explores Southern Gospel music

Last week the BBC broadcast White Gospel, a fascinating documentary exploring the American Southern Gospel musical genre. The programme began with nineteenth-century “Sacred Harp” singing in rural backwaters, and charted the development of various quartets and family groups up to the inevitably slick and big-money music industry of today. Along the way we meet some remarkable characters, perhaps the most impressive of whom was Dottie Rambo, who overcame childhood hardship and in 1968 was the first Southern Gospel performer to use black singers as part of her backing vocals. A woman of sincere Christian faith, Rambo recalled how she stood on stage in Jackson, Mississippi, and dared the KKK to carry out an assassination threat.

The programme also featured Jeff Steele, who in 1996 penned a dominionist anthem for the Christian Right: We Want America Back. This hit song, performed by his family group The Steeles, inspired flag-waving rallies in mega churches, during which Steele would deliver a Jeremaid on the state of the USA under Bill Clinton. The song’s lyrics are widely available on-line; here’s an extract:

Something is wrong. Television daily bombards the senses of our nation with the idea that wrong is right, that the abnormal is normal, that the abhorrent is acceptable, and that what God calls an abomination is nothing more than an alternate life-style.

…The only hope that America has is that Godly men and women will stand together as one might army and declare to the immoral, the impure, the obscene and the foul, “Your days of unlimited access to the minds of America are over. The army of God, that has been silent for too long, is taking America back!”

Steele recalled that the song “exploded”:

We played a week in Branson, we’d never been to Branson, didn’t know anything about it. And the mayor of Branson comes out in the middle of the stage, and presents me with the key to the city and an official proclamation, and begins to weep while he’s presenting me with the proclamation.

Now, however, Steele has had second thoughts:

I just finally came to the conclusion that that’s not preaching, that’s rabble-rousing. That’s not preaching, that’s bashing. And I never got into songwriting of the Christian sort to be a bully. If I were to write that song again today, I would probably say 98 or 99 per cent of the same things, but I would not write it or present it in what I would call such a mean-spirited or heavy-handed way.

We can only guess whether this is a real change of heart or simply a strategic reassessment; the programme featured Steele and his wife Sherry singing the song again, softly and to a piano accompaniment. Easier on the ear, perhaps, but still the same song of Christian dominion – just arranged more in tune with the mood of 2008.