RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Separating the Wheat from the Nuts

I read everything I can about the religious right. Living in the midst of them, they seem in person, for the most part, so dang ordinary. But the literati approaches them as anthropological studies, and credits them with a number of skilled takeovers -- of science, history and politics.

Nearly every Harper's has one of these screeds, most of them suggesting that the church is bent on political takeover. A recent piece took me three reads to get through, but it leads me to believe that my neighbors idolize Stonewall Jackson and want their kids to be jihadists.

That's giving too much credit to the nut cases that are part of every large group. We don't have to figure them out. What we must do, however, is offer choices that will help them. Minimum wage. Medicaid.

The World Christian Database says that about half a billion people are members of an Evangelistic faith -- the "renewalists." These faithful believe they've been "born again" to a special place in God's family. They believe that when good things happen it's in answer to their prayers. When bad things happen, it's a test, and something good will come of it.

They go to churches that have exciting, loud services with occasional experiences like ecstatic members speaking in tongues. The events are entertaining. A psychologist might say that the main satisfaction of these lively events comes with the release of Endorphins, which leave everyone feeling pretty good.

And feeling good is good; nobody argues with that. Especially feeling good in a safe place when the world is so scary and stressful.

For my born-again Christian neighbors, the church is about release. Relief after a week of hard work, and all those scary thoughts. If they think that all the good that comes their way is from God, well, so what?

My favorite born-again friend became renewed after God saved her from rape. She was jogging between her work and home when a car pulled over, a man asked for directions and dragged her into his car. She was a churchgoer, but not yet evangelistic, but prayer was the first thing that came to her mind. She started to pray out loud. After a terrifying few minutes, the man let her go. That was the moment of her conversion.

She was smart enough to get his license plate and description and her testimony led to a conviction and a jail term. Now he's out, and he occasionally turns up at places where her family goes. Can we blame her for praying that the man will leave her alone? Can we blame her for believing that God keeps her safe?

And if she believes that God keeps her safe in a terrifying world, can we blame her for believing that, if she does the other things God wants, like voting for the pastor's favorite issues, she'll be paying him back? Let's face it, it's hard to choose between candidates, especially with campaigns as they are today. Much easier to cast a ballot as someone tells you.

Another Christian friend was born again after she prayed that her husband would get a better job and he did. She's raising a bunch of displaced grandkids, after raising a bunch of kids. Although her life is comfortable, somebody always has a runny nose or a cough and there's not much joy in being trapped in the house with someone that needs care. To fill her days with fun, she sings along with gospel recordings.

Another one found herself pregnant at 16, was kicked out of the house, gave the child up for adoption, married and had two more, divorced and is raising them alone. A few weeks ago, one of the daughters discovered the adopted brother on "MySpace," opening up an embarrassing and painful dialogue. Who wouldn't want to believe that there's a guiding hand in your life with events like that?

These women say that church is the most fun part of their week. The monster churches are clean, light, full of friends and noise, and a huge contrast to life at home. Imagine a Nascar race, or a rock concert -- but without the big ticket prices. That's the modern mega-church.

Because I'm a woman, my born-again friends are women. But if the pastors, even the sleazy ones, convince their boyfriends or husbands to treat women better, then hallelujah for that!

The problem with all this is that my friends don't always vote or act in ways that will benefit them. And that's our challenge. In Missouri, we just passed a minimum wage raise on a ballot initiative. The issue spoke to people, Christians and otherwise, who weren't moved by other issues.

We don't have to prevent the world from evangelicals, or even to try to dissect their religion. All we have to do is give them policies that will help.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2006

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