by Robert Loss
A slightly revised version of the essay originally published in Oxford Magazine, Vol. XXIII, 2009. The original is no longer available on the web.
On a Sunday morning years ago, when my father was visiting me in Ohio, we descended the lobby stairs of the Sheraton Inn into a glittering ballroom with a view of the pool. At clean white tables, the hotel guests hummed in drowsy conversation, groaning as they headed back for seconds from the all-you-can-eat buffet. We took our spot in line, heaped our plates with pancakes pooled with butter and omelets lighter than air, and proceeded to gorge ourselves. This was heaven—a large buffet, everyone welcome, like the kitchen table of my father's parents' house where the talk was snappy. So when my father said, "C'mon sport, get a move on," I sighed and dragged my fork through perfectly-browned pieces of sausage. We were going to church.
The First Congregational church in Twinsburg is in the starched New England style, a white and broad structure with a blocky spire and black clock framed squarely and chiming on the hour. It sits on the town square, opposed by a Civil War memorial and a cannon. My mother was the one who usually dragged me to church, but when my father drove out from Pennsylvania to visit me, she stayed at home while Dad, a wastewater treatment plant operator bedecked that particular day in a charcoal-grey blazer with professorial brown elbow patches, took me to the service. All eyes were on us, I thought, because my mother wasn't along and here I was, seated with this stranger. From Joseph and Mary to Christ and his church, marriage was the norm in Christianity, not divorce. Years later, my father admitted that he'd been nervous, too, from the added pressure of fatherly responsibility; we were a small congregation, word would get back to my mother, and so he had better fly right.
Dewey Long was our reverend then. Over his eyeglasses, he peered from the pulpit during his sermon and a smile broke across his doughy, serious face. As he laughed, his body vibrated with an almost boyish freedom. Like we did at the end of every service, we sang the Doxology, our strident, reedy voices trailing off, "Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." Reverend Long raised his hand and prayed, and then as the organ droned, he hustled out to the front steps so he could shake every hand as we filed out, as he did every Sunday.
Shyly I hung back as we waited on the broad steps while Reverend Long talked politely to everyone. I expected he'd do the same to us, and no more. Instead, the reverend pumped my father's hand vigorously, so much that I could see the veins swelling under his gnarled skin. "Steve! So glad to see you again." His voice soared. That he remembered my father's name was unfathomable. Dad hadn't visited since last fall. My father seemed unfazed and, given the green light to chat up the reverend, he said how much he liked the sermon, how much he liked visiting Twinsburg, and bringing me to church. I stood there dazed by these two men, less reverend and father now than old friends. We held up the line.
These days the reverend's kindness makes more sense, which isn't to say that it seems more common. Reverend Long understood what good clergy understand: they are conduits for the love of God, which is neither exclusive, nor campaigned for, nor won. The reverend's compassion and his awareness of privacy were fundamental, and had freed him from the lesser bonds of judgmentalism and pettiness.
We could use more pastors like Dewey Long. The organized Christian church, even as a house of many rooms, seems more divisive and judgmental by the day, doors closed, curtains drawn, walls mortared to block off the staircases. And perhaps this is because the church has become more politicized.
In the 2008 election campaign, as in many others, the Republican party wanted you to believe that the Midwest was exclusively the province of right-leaning, stoic, Christian conservatives, and some churches, especially evangelical and Pentecostal megachurch organizations, played along. Here in Columbus, Ohio, the World Harvest Church’s exuberant leader, Rod Parsley, had crowed his support for John McCain. (McCain accepted it until out jumped Parsley’s description of Islam as a "false religion.") Parsley is just one of many religious leaders who rails against, essentially, the intolerance of intolerance—how it is unjust to criticize those who practice and preach social injustice, a rhetorical spin jagged enough to cause whiplash.
From the combined brushes of conservative politicians, their pundits, and a loud conservative Christian church is painted the Portrait of the Midwest: small-town, Christian, driven by family values (the term still has not faded) and a stoic individualism which is really an invocation of the pioneer's stance. And this, they say, defines "normal." Defines "American." As if Middle America were one happy, homogenous family, let alone the epitome of America.
I resent the presumption of my beliefs. The far Right would have you believe that, because of my politics, I'm most likely godless. When the existence of my personal faith is allowed for, it's usually accompanied by the hush-toned, condescending qualification that my faith is soft, wrong-minded, second-to-science, or that most-backhanded of terms: spiritual. And I resent as an Ohioan the suggestion that I’m "out of place" in my own home. Certainly, they suggest, I must be nervous eating in a diner with average, working-class Joe-the-Plumbers. Except that when I lived as an adult in Twinsburg, my apartment was a block away from a little diner called Company's Comin'. The milkshakes were sweet and impossibly thick, the coffee equally thick and dark. The service was terrible, as every good diner's should be, and the food was cheap. No one ever asked me if I was a Christian, if I loved America, or why I wasn't wearing a flag lapel. I never felt nervous or out of place.
I can offer only my own experiences as a counterpoint to the conservative portrait of the Midwest. I've lived in Ohio—and, for weeks at a time, because of my parents’ divorce, in Pennsylvania—all of my life. The small towns I grew up in seemed far removed from the pace and stoniness of the larger cities like Cleveland, Harrisburg and York they were near. I live now in Columbus, Ohio, one of the strangest cities ever made. (A friend of mine calls it the "pre-fab city.") The country's largest university combined with a tender, rural tempo; a massive banking and insurance industry; a state and federal governmental hub; a sizable Somalian immigrant community and a large gay population—all smack dab in the middle of vast farmland. The Goody Boy diner on High and Fourth is down the street from six-digit condos. The sleek cool of the Wexner Center must certainly be balanced out by that field of stone cornstalks up in Dublin. Non-profits and corporations. 750,000 yuppies, indie-rockers, stoned college dropouts, metrosexuals, waiters, soccer moms, professors, day laborers and legislators. This is the Midwest, and it's America: in flux, plural, self-constructing.
During the campaign, I tried to think of a single instance in my childhood of the brash, evangelical tenor I kept hearing in the voice of, among others, Sarah Palin. Certainly it must have existed, yet matters of faith were always a murmuring undercurrent in my family and communities. My mother's side of the family barely mentioned religion; my father's side grew up Catholic, though my own father is a self-described "lapsed Catholic" and his youngest brother is a Mormon living in Utah with his wonderful, vibrant family. I can remember no incident in school of prejudice against, or even openness about, a kid's religious orientation. Twinsburg is small town south of Cleveland, and its population doubled between the late 1980s and the end of the century; given the variety of our churches, what a hormone-fueled little lot of Methodists, Jews, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and, yes, Muslims we must have been! And yet religion seemed to exist off-stage. Not that religion didn't matter. It was just a private matter.
What the barking preachers and Republican pundits failed to recognize in the fall of 2008 was that, in the Middle America I grew up in and know to this day, the privacy of one's religion is valued above all else. It would have been distasteful to make a stink over what goes on in the privacy of someone else's home (and just as embarrassing to parade your children as campaign props). For all the gossip and bickering that certainly courses through small towns like the ones I grew up in—Twinsburg, Manchester, Hanover—the curiosity of a meddlesome Mrs. Gadfly would be intercepted, at some point, by the stiff-armed Mrs. Shut-Your-Mouth. "None of your business" is a phrase I remember vividly from my childhood. Of course, once you put yourself into the public realm, you've given folks a bit more license to blab. But the majority of us don't live with massive public profiles, and so as the topic progresses from lawn ornament disasters to religion, the clamp of privacy tightens.
The neo-conservative obsession with Main-Streeting and streamlining religious beliefs is, I believe, a perhaps genuine but nonetheless grave misreading of God's mission for us. In his book Where God Happens, even the embattled Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reminds us that "an unhealthy church is one in which unity has been reduced to a homogeneity of opinions and habits, so that certain styles of devotion, or certain expressions of what God means to this or that person, are frowned on." I'd suggest this homogeneity is a sign, too, of an unhealthy country.
And though Williams correctly points out that we should "beware of thinking that this is a problem just of the political right or of the left," I can’t help but notice that the effort to homogenize the private individual's conception of God and his truths most actively rattles and rages on the far conservative side of the political spectrum, where the rights of the individual are supposedly valued above all else. It is the fear of losing our individual privacy to the vague, deviant public which social conservatives so often exploit. Yet their policies are contradictory: on the one hand, the "threat" of gay marriage is that private individuals' choices will somehow degrade that pristine, shining public organism of marriage, and yet reels in that hoary old fear, mainly possessed by men, that a gay man will want to "make you" gay—that by gaining a public legitimacy, that now-public group will menace you, the hapless individual. God enters the picture as benevolent protector. He just happens to protect you, and not the other guy.
It's an old tactic, and it's been used to energize nationalism, racism, and isolationism and pre-emptive strikes. In the 2008 campaign, I saw the Midwest turned into God's own territory, an implication that a large number of us are running against the tide, and below the radar. What's worse, I saw the exact thing conservatives always rail against: an attempt by some public entity to define who I am, or who I ought to be.
I hesitate to call the political use of religion, and of Midwest "values," pure propaganda. It is a perhaps genuine but nonetheless grave misreading. Still, it's not hard to see that statements of homogeneity and "good honest folks" are a kind of short-hand, an easy-speaking, and are designed not to encourage dialogue, but to stop it.
There's a danger in that privacy I witnessed as a child, and that I witness to this day. It threatens to keep worthy, progressive voices silent. After all, as Sarah Palin airbrushed her version of the Midwest with that deceptive "good, honest folks" sheen, few of us spoke out against her. The 2008 election may have bore out Ohio's discomfort with her message, yet I can't help but wonder if that sense of privacy doesn't lead to a lack of meaningful dialogue, an absence which in turn does nothing to stop polarizing diatribes from either side.
Oddly enough, it is the de-privatization of religious thinking that can muddy the simple portrait and bring us closer to a truth. But this has to happen from the bottom-up, and it has to be voluntary. It must begin with those who Martin Luther King Jr. called "ordinary people," you and I, with our ordinary fears, our ordinary contradictions, our ordinary hopes.
We have the potential. Some of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know here in the Midwest consider themselves Christians, and theirs is most often the view that, once we do step out of the private colloquy with God, our next obligation is to encourage dialogue with fellow pilgrims, private discussions between two people, or within small groups. Religion is not a tool with which to "win," but a fundamental language by which to understand the mystery of our beautiful, troubled existence, and there is no better way to engage with that mystery than a dialogue, a talking-with, not a talking-at. It requires compassion and patience found too infrequently in the political discourse of faith, and a recognition of the uniqueness of individuals, the wondrous specificity of the person with whom you are genuinely sharing doubts, worries, and hopes. As soft as it may seem, to open up like this, and to listen to someone opening up to you, is anything but easy. As my father used to say when we'd fight, "Let's talk it out. I can't read your damn thoughts, kid."
I am a liberal/progressive/social Democrat who believes in God after many years of either ignoring or outright railing against Him. Despite the stronger faith I've found in the past few years, I still turn to the sky like Estragon in Waiting for Godot and wonder if God sees me. Here in what we call Flat City, I am struggling daily to find my way; in truth, I write more from doubt and inquiry than assertion. Like this Midwestern city, I have a sense of being newly constructed, sprawling, and only tentatively connected to a history that matters much. I don't consider myself "good honest folk," and I'm suspicious of traditions, but I consider myself an American; I was born and have lived on this soil, and I do not hesitate to claim my home.
I doubt it would have mattered much to Dewey Long, these political terms we seem obliged to define ourselves with. Standing on those steps, his robe rippling in the breeze, he was probably less concerned with the Far Right and what it means to be of the Midwest than he was with that line from Micah, the command to "do justly, love mercifully, and walk humbly with thy God." And before him, he saw not voters, or numbers to win, but souls in search of regard, in need of inclusive words and the affirmation of a handshake.
Recently I found out that my father wrote letters to Reverend Long, letters filled with praise and thanks, but also with religious questions, concerns about his ability to be a good father from such a distance, and honest admissions of his own sins. I don’t know every word that was written, or how long their correspondence lasted, only that it became a correspondence because the reverend answered every time.