(Jon McNaughton)

Editor’s Note: Utah-based artist Jon McNaughton has received a lot of attention from both the press and political pundits. Much of this attention has been negative, deriding his interpretation of American history as simplistic and the art itself as heavy-handed. New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz describes McNaughton’s work as “drop-dead obvious in message” and “visually dead as a doornail.” Last year, McNaughton’s alma mater Brigham Young University stopped selling his painting One Nation Under God after a BYU art professor called it a propaganda piece for the Tea Party. (McNaughton subsequently pulled the entire display of his paintings in protest.) The controversy only increased McNaughton’s popularity among Tea Partiers who have flocked to his website to purchase prints of his paintings. 

We asked art historian and Duke University professor of religion, David Morgan, to analyze McNaughton’s work. In McNaughton, Morgan finds something old: a jeremiad against the current American political establishment. He also finds something new: a coalition of evangelical Christians and conservative Mormons, a union that could prove highly influential in the 2012 presidential contest.

With his paintings The Forgotten Man (2010), One Nation Under God (2009), and most recently, Wake Up America! (2011), Jon McNaughton aims to leave little room for interpretation. In their remarkable didacticism—an America on the brink of political and moral disaster—McNaughton’s works serve to call the nation to arms, or at least to the polling booths. The impression is one of thorough legibility, of history as a long list of epigraphs. The artist will have nothing of ambivalence or illegibility. “Everything about [One Nation Under God] is symbolic,” McNaughton frankly explains.

As if dusted off from some Smithsonian storage unit, the crowded regimentation of figures, especially the array of hands and arms, recalls the theatricality of fiberglass scenes in a history museum or commemorative engravings of Congressional celebrities that were popular in the nineteenth century.

However, by fully exploiting Internet technology on his website, these paintings are thoroughly twenty-first century creations. By placing the cursor on each figure, the viewer summons a detailed register of the artist’s comments, identifying the person and explaining why he or she is included. The device confirms my initial sense: these are images you read because they bear meaning, a solemn message that was the principal engine of their creation. Nothing in the images escapes the cursor’s errand.

There are precisely fifty stars in the striped heavens radiating from Jesus’ head in One Nation Under God. And the leaden skies above the White House in The Forgotten Man form “an ominous dark cloud hang[ing] over this country in the form of an uncontrollable Federal Deficit with crushing debt obligations.” In Wake Up America!, a heavy chain snakes through a crowd captivated by President Obama, who delivers a stump speech in falling streams of money. Enslaved to government handouts and excessive spending, the people are depicted as having traded national sovereignty for a new Babylonian captivity.

The history of political imagery, even fine art imagery, is mottled with dense portraits of orators, heroes, politicians, villains, and martyrs frozen forever in postures keyed to their deeds and memorable words. The Capitol building in Washington, D.C. enshrines dozens of these marble and bronze figures. There, visitors can find statues of Abraham Lincoln and a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., captured in moments of high oratory or visionary musing. These works of art are meant to convey to the ages the ideas the figures championed in legislation or national crisis.

It is tempting to say that such images are more ideogram than objet d’art. Their task is to transmit ideas and points of view—ideology, we might say, worldviews or bodies of thought performing as tableau vivants, theatrical renditions of Great Moments. But the history of Christian art also includes such visual sermons. The Last Judgment commonly appeared on the western portal or the western interior walls of cathedrals. Giotto and Michelangelo both famously inserted portraits of historical individuals they wished to glorify, or to damn. In fact, the traditional composition of the Last Judgment informs One Nation Under God. A regal Jesus occupies the center. To his right sit the elect; to this left the damned; behind him the blessed saints and martyrs of the nation/church. In the distance we glimpse the architecture of the heavenly Jerusalem.

One Nation Under God is a picture fraught with doctrine and a sense of urgency, and so the artist’s use of the Last Judgment as a visual framework makes sense. Indeed, the pictorial formula suits the homiletic occasion. The artist is adamant that Americans have forgotten the divine inspiration of their nation’s origin. Is McNaughton’s painting re-staging the end of history on American soil? The eschatological sorting of righteous and wicked to either side of the post-resurrection Jesus (the nail mark is visible on the back of his hand) may suggest as much. The golden tree on Christ’s breast is the Tree of Life, a symbol more important to the artist’s Mormonism than to other versions of Christianity. Here it symbolizes the seven dispensations of history, suggesting that the fullness of time draws near.

Yet there is no hint of apocalyptic destruction. Rather, the image is a warning. The picture intones its message in the tradition of the American jeremiad: there is something wrong in the nation that demands repentance, in order for America to return to God’s providential plan for his chosen people, the new Israel. McNaughton uses the motif of the Last Judgment, and the scenography of history painting, to suggest that Christ is vindicating the Constitution as well as witnessing for American history’s saints and martyrs. He condemns the liberals—professors, judges, lawyers, journalists, and Hollywood producers (all carefully identified and explained at McNaughton’s website)—who hijacked America. At the same time, Christ extols those who have struggled to keep the faith: schoolteachers, farmers, hardworking immigrants, mothers, doctors, and soldiers. It is they who recognize Christ’s hand in and on the Constitution. But the damned are not persuaded. Only the judge clasps his face in remorse, having cast aside the history of decisions that eroded the Constitution’s original intent by according greater power to the Supreme Court and an activist judiciary.

A few years ago, political commentators wondered if a new partnership was emerging in American politics between evangelicals and Catholics. But neither group has turned out to be as monolithic as some expected. One Nation Under God, The Forgotten Man and Wake Up America! suggest a new coalition, one personified in Glenn Beck (and now perhaps Mitt Romney): a union among conservative evangelicals and Mormons. It is noteworthy that Joseph Smith is not among the worthies who step forth from the mist of the American past. But we do see at least one Mormon: among the righteous stands a black male college student—perhaps a counterintuitive choice to represent McNaughton’s own faith, as black men were banned from the Mormon priesthood until 1978. This man holds a copy of a book by the oft-described “faith-based political theorist” Willard Cleon Skousen, a writer frequently touted by Beck. The Five Thousand Year Leap (1981) proclaimed that the Constitution was inspired by the freedom fighters of the Bible, not the free thinkers of the Enlightenment. The cause around which the new coalition gathers is the Christian Nation—although whether this alliance can endure remains to be seen. The artist himself told The National Review that he left the GOP during the presidency of George W. Bush, who, McNaughton said, “ruined the Republican Party.”

It is easy for art critics to scowl at McNaughton’s pictures as preachy, partisan, and cheesy. Their solemnity and their illustrational literalism tempt many observers to dismiss them as propaganda or kitsch. And Wake Up America! certainly seems more political cheerleading than artistic vision. But simply scorning the work misses the opportunity to understand something powerful moving through many religious sub-cultures in the United States today. These groups do not distinguish between religion and politics the way that many commentators and cultural analysts would prefer. For McNaughton and his admirers, as well as many more, there is nothing at all absurd about Jesus holding the Constitution as a sacred artifact, as evidence of his authorial intent.

Yet intent is complex. Nothing is as unambiguous as the artist would like. Reading images does not eliminate the problem of uncontrolled interpretation. Despite McNaughton’s meticulous symbolism and labeling, viewers have seen the seated Caucasian figure in The Forgotten Man as lamenting only the white unemployed. The looming absence of blacks in the picture—Obama stands alone in a crowd of white faces—is striking. Seen in the light of Skousen’s outré defense of slave owners in his revisions of American history, the contrast is more than striking. McNaughton objects that “there is no racial meaning or undertone” to the painting.

If a painting were nothing more than an encoded message, bearing only its maker’s conscious intention, revealed as the computer cursor moves over each figure, we might leave matters at that. But the curse of art is that endowing the image with artistic status means regarding it as more than a poster board. Even McNaughton loses control over the meaning of his paintings as soon as he uploads them.

David Morgan is a professor of religion at Duke University. He co-edits the journal Material Religion