In Ariel Burger's lovely 2018 book, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom, he quotes Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, as saying, "It is the otherness of the other that fascinates me. . .What can I learn from him? What does he see that I do not, cannot?"
It's that same spirit of openness and inquiry that permeates journalist and Lutheran pastor Angela Denker's new book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, which will be officially published tomorrow.
After traveling the country, speaking mostly to Christians who identify as evangelical, 81 percent of whom voted for Trump for president in 2016, she concludes this: "All across America, people are doing surprising things that don't fit into our prescribed boxes that we used to categorize people. Evangelicals are not a monolith, not universally any one thing, and Red-State Christians defy categorization."
It's a wise lesson that people on all sides of the political divides (plural) would do well to heed. The reality that labels hide much more than they reveal often escapes people, except for those who purposefully employ such labels to win political battles and divide people.
There are good reasons for people across the country to read this book and a few special reasons for Kansas Citians and Missourians to pay attention. Denker, who has lived in Kansas City in the past, is (like me) a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. And she has family living in rural Cole Camp, Mo., about whom she writes in this book.
But the best reason to recommend the book is that Denker has done the reportorial legwork. She has talked to real people all over the country, a few of whom (but far from all) fit the stereotype of the MAGA-hat wearing people we've all seen at Trump rallies, cheering for his xenophobic remarks and applauding his worst instincts. In addition to a few of those folks, however, the book is full of interesting people with interesting and deeply human stories about what they believe and why they believe it, and why, at times, they are profoundly conflicted about Trump and why many of them voted for him.
Denker is clear that she often is personally appalled by Trump and that she didn't vote for him. But her strength is that she is usually able to set that aside to be able to listen to others who have sometimes-radically different views.
Many of those Trump voters, she writes, "have lost confidence in America's Christian identity. The United States is no longer the place where resurrection seems possible because anything is possible. . ." You begin to see in that insight reasons for the MAGA slogan that would return the country to a condition that, in fact, never existed except in the minds of some people. And "America's Christian identity," as Denker puts it, gives rise to Christian nationalism, about which I wrote most recently here.
Occasionally in a book full of helpful insights, I found some sentences that just stopped me. For instance, as she's writing about her father-in-law being drafted from rural Missouri into the Army in the Vietnam era, she calls 1968 "the most tumultuous year in American history." Oh, my. What about 1776, 1812, 1861, 1865, 1917, 1929, 1941, 1945, 2001?
But mostly this is an excellent read, in which the author not just does good reporting but, once having done that, is not afraid to draw some sharp conclusions. An example:
After spending time at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, including talking to members and staff and attending services, Denker concludes this about the pastor, the Rev. Jack Graham: ". . .Graham plays a religious leader, but he leads people away from God. He manipulates. He uses hatred of the other, fear and submission to gain power -- a distortion of the true gospel of Jesus, grounded in love, acceptance, forgiveness and the absence of fear." And then she mentions a member of Prestonwood with whom she had spoken as proof that "not every Red-State Christian at Prestonwood drips with the same anger and fear. Thank God."
Throughout the book we find various Jack Grahams, but we also find sincere, deeply faithful Christians who seek to live out their faith in consistent ways and who may or may not be ardent Trump supporters, all for reasons that make sense to them. Denker listens and learns. As readers will.
All the hot-button issues are in this book: guns, abortion, LGBTQ matters, immigration, race, the role of women, military might and more. And the lesson to be learned is that in some ways the people Denker calls Red-State Christians sometimes are all over the map on those issues. You have to talk to them to learn. You can't just assume.
Speaking of race, she asks who the anti-Trump evangelicals are. Her answer: "Most of these voices come from church leaders of color, many from the African American church. Today, in communities of color, it is still churches that serve as a beacon of hope, power and organizing, providing assistance, mentoring and a moral compass."
Among the people who, in this book, come across as much more human than they seem via press coverage of them is Paula White, one of Trump's closest spiritual advisers. Denker concludes that White "is too tired to keep up the old televangelism charade. What she has left, however, is a genuine love of Jesus and a childlike hope that she can share his gospel even with Donald Trump."
Based on Trump's relationship with White and several other strong women close to him, Denker says that "unlike so many of his evangelical pastor counterparts, Trump does appreciate a strong, smart woman. At least in that one way he is more Christlike than many of them."
Near the end of the book is this pretty fair summary of the whole thing: "While liberals often assume brown-skinned refugees are poverty-stricken invalids in need of saving and education, conservatives too often see them as radical Muslims in need of conversion. What we all need is to listen more."
Listening more. What a concept.
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ATHEISTS NEED NOT APPLY?
In this piece, The Guardian, an excellent British newspaper, explores the question of why there are so few atheists among American politicians. One of the members of Congress quoted at some length in the piece, Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), grew up in Independence, Mo., and in the church now called the Community of Christ. Interesting guy.