Art, Politics, and Religion: McNaughton's Agenda
In their recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell observed that, while conservative religious congregations were less likely than liberal congregations to make overt political statements, there was no need to do so because they were already assumed. Indeed, in the book's surveys, those on the right were much more likely to admit an influential connection between their political and religious views, and to admit that the two views fed into each other. Ever since the 1970s, American Grace tells us, there has been a growing fusion between religion and conservatism on the one hand, and secularism and liberalism on the other.
McNaughton's art exemplifies the current phenomenon of blending religion and conservatism to such a degree that the two become inseparable, all based on the assumption that the one always leads to the other. This sort of political and religious conflation is especially the case within the LDS tradition. McNaughton certainly derives from this tradition, which has for the last century been strongly attached to the Republican Party, making the Mormon-dominated state of Utah among the reddest in the nation. In McNaughton's painting, America's leading figures worship not only the Constitution, but also Jesus; they recognize not only American exceptionalism, but also Christianity's supremacy. His art is perhaps the culmination of an extreme conservative trend within Mormonism, and BYU's decision to pull the painting possibly represents a decision that the trend has gone too far.
Blasting American liberalism and praising America's founders is, for McNaughton, as much a form of religious conviction as it is political persuasion. This explains his shock at BYU's decision that One Nation Under God was too political for their religious-themed art section; for McNaughton, the two are one and the same.
The Function of Art
It is a common adage that art doesn't interpret itself. So Jon McNaughton makes sure to interpret his art for you. On his website, he provides more than just background commentary for his four featured paintings; he gives an interpretive commentary for every individual found in the work. This approach marks a distinct element of his artwork: the message is not only more important than the image, but the image is merely a vehicle to present the message. These descriptions offer both a defense for the inclusion of certain figures as well as the furthering of a specific agenda.
Consider, for example, McNaughton's Via Dolorosa. In this work, McNaughton depicts Christ's journey to Calvary while carrying his cross. ("Via Dolorosa" is Latin for "Way of Suffering" and is the name of a path traditionally believed to be the road Christ followed to his death.) The entire painting is framed around the notion of "suffering"—Christians are the "most persecuted people in the entire world," McNaughton claims, and he portrays over a hundred figures who he believes played either a positive or detrimental role in the history of Christianity.
Benjamin E. Park has a bachelor's degree in history and literature from Brigham Young University, a master's degree in historical theology from the University of Edinburgh, and is currently a graduate student in political thought and intellectual history at Cambridge University. He blogs on Mormon history at Juvenile Instructor.