RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Ted Cruzing with Iowa Evangelicals

The morning after the Iowa caucuses, the first e-mail in my mailbox was from a reader of The Progressive Populist. “Iowa never ceases to amaze me...” he said.

“The whole world never ceases to amaze me,” I answered.

There are a bunch of reasons to be amazed by the races run in Iowa, but primary is this: Iowans, like many Americans, are fed up with the takings of corporate, industrial America. Richard Manning, writing in a recent Harper’s magazine, got it somewhat right. He wrote about the pollution by giant hog and poultry facilities (confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) and endless corn fields, and the extreme expense of removing agricultural chemicals from drinking water.

“There are about 21 million hogs in Iowa, and almost all of them live in hog factories,” Manning wrote. “Each hog produces the waste of about 2.5 people, meaning Iowa bears the shit equivalent, from hogs alone, of about 45 million people, some fifteen times its human population.”

Industry has stolen Iowa’s clean water, and in some places its breathable air. Industry’s newest pig disease, PedV, threatens the economy, and industry’s latest bird flu, if in a slightly different form, could have moved into human populations.

Iowans may have been amused for a while by the vaudevillian buffoonery of Donald Trump, arriving by jet and offering rides on his helicopter, but even before Huck Finn pointed it out, Iowans knew that traveling actors were a phony lot that leave town when the show is over. Much better to throw your lot in with folks that stop in your town for coffee and conversation.

So it’s Ted (Machine Gun Bacon) Cruz in Iowa. Citizens, including farmers, saw his stated objection to the ethanol fuel standard as a blow against industry. Mainstream media chalked it up to his Evangelical ties.

Here’s the thing, though. The mainstream media hasn’t figured out why Evangelicals win. As is often the case, the answer is more about form than substance.

Here’s the usual sound bite. “Politician X has a personal connection to Christ. S/he goes to church, reads the Bible and prays every day ...” And, on top of the sound bite, we see pictures of people swooning in church and maybe speaking in tongues. Dramatic stuff, but it’s only the tiniest piece of the story.

It’s true that Evangelicals, springing from a mix of Protestant denominations, who may also say they’re “born-again,” believe that they’ll be saved from Hell if they read the Bible and follow the teachings of Jesus. A personal conversion experience is often part of their story, that’s the form, but the driving force is fear. That’s the substance.

One good friend of mine believes she was rescued from a rape by loudly reciting the 23rd Psalm as a would-be rapist tried to drag her into the woods while she was jogging through a state park. Another friend believes their family was saved from financial ruin when they started going to a particular church. Both of these folks would tell you that even though they’ll die, there will be a day when Jesus comes back and calls them back to life, really good life, because they have been loyal Christians. They go to church, they read the Bible, they pray and they tithe.

It’s a pretty comforting scene, eternal salvation. But there’s more ... and this is stuff that the politicians could work with: The Evangelical churches do a great job of taking care of their members. If you’re poor and you turn up at an Evangelical service, they’ll feed you. If you’re addicted, they’ll counsel you. They donate their parking lots to traveling doctors and dentists. They organize soup kitchens and food pantries. They invite you to fellowship. The biggest churches have gymnasiums where the kids can practice their basketball shots after school, in a safe place. In my rural neighborhood, one church has an office with wi-fi and copy machines open to farmers. Free to members, or we might say paid for by tithing.

So, here on earth, pre-salvation, the Evangelical movement offers a lot more than a weekly service and an escape from the dull. In Iowa, they even have their own pizza restaurant chain where you can leave a card with your prayer concerns on the table with your tip.

Could other movements mimic the Evangelicals? Could unaffiliated persons—agnostics, atheists, lapsed, or simply non-spiritual—meet in fellowship every week, open soup kitchens, help their fellow humans?

Of course they can, and do. And by one estimate, the number of unaffiliated Americans has risen from 8% in 1990 to 22% in 2014 while Christianity declined.

But, for the next year, it looks like Evangelicals have an edge. And Mr. Cruz, ladies and gentlemen, if he can survive New Hampshire and move into the Southern states without imploding, looks poised to be your next Republican nominee.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2016

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