Bruce Springsteen's Jeep Shot | Opinion

How might we heal our fractured country? We can consider intricate and necessary policies. We can invest in building community. Or, you know, we can let a rock star with a raspy voice mosey about in a car commercial.

That, of course, was the approach of a now-notorious ad that aired during this year's Super Bowl, featuring Bruce Springsteen as one part Moses, one part Abraham Lincoln, one part Tom Joad. Olivier Francois, the CEO of Jeep's parent company, called it a "prayer." Meandering through a landscape that looked less like a real town and more like what you might get if you typed "America" into a screensaver generator, Springsteen stares meaningfully into space, framed by his shiny white Jeep CJ-5 and, occasionally, a church or a flag or a snow-dusted country road. The voiceover is no less banal, with talk of freedom and the middle and who we really are as a nation.

And who we really are as a nation—to the chagrin, perhaps, of the cool cats who make and pay for multimillion-dollar ads—is religious.

This Jeep ad is hardly the first to reach out for the sublime and stumble into the ridiculous instead. But it's worth our attention not as fleeting comic relief but as a stark reminder of just how bifurcated and broken our culture has become.

Imagine, for a moment, what the ad might've sounded like if it was made not, as it reportedly was, by Springsteen and Francois. Imagine, say, leaving the wording and imagery to regular churchgoers. If such people were anywhere near the most brilliant spotlight our culture has to offer, they might deliver three observations our self-appointed intellectual and moral leaders desperately need to hear.

Bruce Springsteen
In this screengrab, Bruce Springsteen performs during the Celebrating America Primetime Special on January 20, 2021. The livestream event hosted by Tom Hanks features remarks by president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris and performances representing diverse American talent. Handout/Biden Inaugural Committee/Getty

First, they might have said that religious Americans—real ones, not ones who play the part on TV—like to keep their places of worship and their places of commerce at a healthy distance. Forget the separation of church and state—for real peace of mind, we need a separation of church and car dealership.

Next, Americans who take religion seriously would've likely informed you that to sound "religious" you needed to do more than talk, like Bruce in the ad, about reaching "the mountaintop" through "the desert." You needed to understand that the mountaintop and the desert in question are real places that played a part in a real theology that presented believers with real demands. The faithful do more than merely display the symbols of their faith the way the ad's skilled art director did; in fact, they only care for these symbols because they evoke so many layers of meaning. Talking about that meaning would've gone much further than merely coming up with a few sleek visuals set to an appealing guitar melody.

Finally, there's the matter of community. It hardly takes a doctor of divinity to realize that you can't create one without coming together with other people, including some you don't particularly like. If Springsteen wanted to show what a real community looked like, he should've stood there, shoulder to shoulder, with other human beings, at least some of whom he really didn't care for. If the message was, to borrow a phrase from Springsteen himself, that "you can't break the ties that bind," well, let's actually see some of the disparate and divided Americans who share those bonds hanging out together.

Thankfully, those of us who belong to a religious congregation do just that weekly or even daily. We go to services and sit in pews next to people who often have opinions and ideas we find very difficult to accept. We don't yell at them or thunder self-righteously, as some aging rockers or high-powered executives might, that those we don't like are either unevolved troglodytes or dangerous radicals. Instead, we do the hard work of building a real community and finding a real middle—work that takes more than a couple of minutes once a year to do.

Let Madison Avenue, then, continue to lecture us about morals and values while cramming culture and consumer goods down our throat for millions of dollars per thirty seconds. Our values, unlike theirs, are both priceless and timeless.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is the founder of The Joshua Project. He is one of the youngest leaders of a major Jewish organization in the U.S., serving as chief executive of Bnai Zion, which has supported educational and humanitarian projects in the United States and Israel for over 112 years. Rabbi Lamm is a Princeton-trained historian of religion.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.