BRANSON, Mo. (RNS) — A night at the Dolly Parton Stampede is a microcosm of life in these polarized United States.
For nearly two hours, on a hot August night, a capacity crowd divided by North and South, Red and Blue, tried to outshout the other side, egged on by leaders who referred to the other side by creative, G-rated terms of derision.
The tension ramped up as two teams of riders dressed as cowboys and pioneers of the Old West competed to show which side could ride fastest, dodging obstacles and the occasional ring of fire — then breaking into songs or corn-pone jokes. At the same time, the audience cheered and devoured Cornish hens, biscuits and corn on the cob by the truckload.
At the end of the night, out came the American flag for a parade with a Dolly Parton soundtrack, designed to remind everyone that no matter where they came from, they all bleed red, white and blue.
"There really is no North or South, no East or West — because we are the United States of America" said the show's emcee, decked out in a star-spangled outfit. "United under one flag."
Then he asked the crowd, "Are you proud to be an American?" as Dolly Parton's voice rose in "America the Beautiful."
"America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."
Welcome to Branson, Missouri, where the holy trinity of faith, flag and family reign supreme and where an inspirational, God-and-country style of Christian nationalism serves as comfort food for the American soul. For more than a century, weary pilgrims have sought spiritual renewal and rest from the troubles 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 refuge where they could hunt and fish in its pristine wilderness. The area became filled with spiritual meaning after the 1917 publication of "The Shepherd of the Hills," a bestselling novel by Disciples of Christ minister Harold Bell Wright, a tale of romance and redemption set in the hills of the Ozarks.
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 site of the show has been updated with zip lines and the mammoth Inspiration Tower, the highest point in the city.
Wright was a proponent of a conservative version of the social gospel, where a person's loving actions on behalf of those in need matter more than their doctrine or prayers, said Aaron Ketchell, author of "Holy Hills of the Ozarks," a history of religious tourism in Branson.
Wright's dream of a nostalgic, nondenominational, inspirational holy space remains part of the soul of Branson, said Ketchell. While the message is Christian, he said, it's not doctrinaire or evangelistic. Instead, the message is aspirational, focused on hope and love rather than conversion.
"The place is really built on a subtle conveying of Christian messages," he said.
David Ott and his wife, Carol, a retired couple from Minneapolis, have visited — more than 60 times since 1980 — Silver Dollar City, a theme park owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, whose businesses include the Dolly Parton Stampede, and which operates "in a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics."
"I could be a tour guide," said David Ott while riding the tram back to the parking lot on a sunny day in late August.
The Otts, who are Baptists, had just spent the day at a major Southern gospel music festival that takes over the park in late August. Ott said the family and faith-friendly atmosphere — and the music — keep them coming back.
"Everything there is a spiritual-based atmosphere," Ott said.
Ott said he and his wife often go to shows while visiting Branson. Among their 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've seen every show, including original productions about Moses, Noah and Jesus, as well as the Christmas show.
Billboards for "Jesus" were everywhere in Branson in late August. The show, which debuted at the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2018 and opened in Branson in March of 2021, has been seen by more than 4 million people.
Ott raved about a scene in the show, which ended its run in early October, depicting the Apostle Peter walking out on the water to meet Jesus.
"I don't know how they do their special effects, but they are fantastic," he said.
The theater's original productions, based on biblical texts, feature singing, dancing, live animals, massive sets that move by remote-controlled robots, and dazzling special effects — the Branson theater boasts a 12-ton LED video screen that cost more than a million dollars to install.
A more modest Branson attraction can be found at the Freedom Encounter, which runs a patriotic-themed show called "Freedom Journey" three times a week 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.
A genial former pastor and church musician, Darren Myers emcees the show, which weaves together faith-based quotes from the Founding Fathers, video interviews with modern immigrants and patriotic anthems. He's also the founder of the Freedom Encounter — a nonprofit that plans to transform the theater into a faith-based museum, which will include a space for "Freedom Journey," as well as interactive exhibits, a bookstore and a kids' play area modeled after a colonial village.
Myers left his church in 2015 to found an evangelistic ministry devoted to traveling the country and "spreading the truth of God's word and the truth of our country's founding," to help save the country from "a spiritual crisis," according to the promotional video for the ministry. After several years of performing the "Freedom Journey" show during the week of Veteran's Day in Branson, Myers decided to found the museum.
"My angle has always been, we're in a spiritual war and we have the truth," he told RNS during an interview at Freedom Encounter. "And we've got to tell the truth because the truth is what makes us free, and freedom isn't going to happen, you know, separate from the truth."
Myers said he's not a Christian nationalist and doesn't think the nation only belongs to Christians. But he does argue Christian ideas are essential to America.
Building an audience has been slow but steady work, Myers told RNS. Most audiences are small, but a few times the show has drawn as many as 200 people.
"That's pretty typical for a new Branson show," he said. "We're right on track."
While more hardcore Christian nationalism can be found in Branson, that message has its limits. Gary Emas, the 71-year-old owner of the Faith, Family and Freedom store on highway 76 in Branson, said that more MAGA-friendly businesses aren't welcome in Branson.
"They are all RINOS in Branson," said Emas from the porch of his store, 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 salesman, Emas said business has been tough since he started the store. Few tourists seem to be enthusiastic about stopping by the store, whose shelves are lined with flags and pro-MAGA messages.
During an interview, Emas was dressed in a red, white and blue T-shirt that depicted the cross, a crown of thorns and the American flag gripped in Jesus' hand.
Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab, said there has been a great deal of pushback on the criticism of Christian nationalism — the idea that America is at its core a nation for Christians — from more conservative Christians who believe in what they see as a more inclusive vision of America.
"There really is a much more sort of 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 that, you know, why can't we all just be, you know, good Americans and proud of the country and the flag," Braunstein said.
But that more nostalgic view can also exist side by side with more extreme views of Christian nationalism, which claims that Christians are the only true Americans or that the country is less great because of pluralism or diversity, said Braunstein.
"Both views use religion as a marker 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 the MAGA 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 fellow transplants come to Branson out of a sense of nostalgia.
"I've met several people from Oregon or California who said they wanted to get back to 'good old America,'" he said over coffee and eggs at Billy Gail's, a popular eatery.
Law said he used to think that kind of God and country patriotism was a harmless fiction — more like Harry Potter or Star Wars than a faith based on the teachings of Jesus. He's seen that change in recent years.
"I viewed it almost as fiction — a kind of make-believe world that never existed but people want to exist," he said. "If it's viewed as fiction, then I think it's fine. It's entertainment. The problem is, I don't think a lot of people take it as entertainment. I think they take it very seriously."
This story was produced under a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.
This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP partner on some religion news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.