From a distance, America’s heartland looks easy to map. Peopled by Trump voters and churchgoers, farmers and diner patrons, it is a country within a country, governed by values city folk abandoned long ago. If that story, seen in the national press, is all you know of rural places, it would be easy to think that the great American divide is an impassable thing. In reality, the divide is material as well as cultural, and rural life is one of loss, yes, but that loss can give way to hope.
In Lyz Lenz’s God Land (Indiana University Press), which is part memoir and part reporting project, she uses the shock of Donald Trump’s election to explore the place of religion in the American midwest. Lenz—who lives in Iowa—finds that America is indeed a nation divided; her own marriage does not survive her husband’s support for Trump. But division isn’t the only story she has to tell.
Like her, I was raised evangelical, and though I live in New York City now, I grew up in rural Virginia. Lenz is still a person of faith, and I’m not, but we both left conservative Christianity. Its misogyny and fear of the other, which Lenz depicts in her book, aren’t conducive to a happy life. But the right does not own Christianity, and there are other ways to be faithful. Lenz finds beauty, still, in some churches – in the people who fill their pews, in the communities they serve, and in the possibility that change is near.
Sarah Jones: I like the title of your book because, in everybody’s mind, they think of the rural south and of the Midwest as “God Land”—that’s where those people live. But the whole country is God Land, isn’t it?
Lyz Lenz: Exactly. I don’t really believe in bubbles, or that you can somehow live in a place where it’s not part of the fabric of even the city, like where you are—what’s open, or not open, on a Sunday? There’s so much about how we have created communities in America that’s based around faith. And I think that if you don’t see it, it’s because you don’t know how to see it. Just yesterday, I went into a coffee shop, and I was like, That’s a group of pastors.
I can always tell, anywhere I am.
And then I listened, putting creamer in my coffee, and I heard them say “calling” and then “community.” Also something about “gifting.”
Oh, I hate that word.
I was like, “that’s it, that’s it, I’m right! CONGRATULATIONS TO ME ON BEING ABLE TO SPOT CRAZY. Now get the fuck out of here.”
But it is there, and that’s why people got surprised in 2016. Or they get surprised when Mike Pence refuses to have dinner with women without anyone else around. This is always been there. You just didn’t see it, or you just didn’t have to see it before.
That really helps explain why so many in the political press were and still are surprised that white evangelicals really like somebody who clearly doesn’t fit with traditional religious values.
Right, and it’s not about theology. And that’s the other thing that I think people don’t understand. You can really see this in the conversation about what’s happening on the border. People keep saying, well, if you’re really Christian you should believe in giving to the orphan and the refugee. Freedom for all. But it’s about the term that people have been using a lot, “Christian nationalism.” It’s less about the actual words in the Bible, because Jesus never was like, “Yo, y’all should really have a lot of guns right now.”
Abortion doesn’t come up.
Lots of stuff doesn’t come up. What it is actually about is cultural identity. During the Cold War, our political leaders and our religious leaders really made a concerted effort to weave together this idea of Christian faith and what means to be an American. This didn’t happen on accident. This happened because we wanted to justify the war machine, the spying, the work ethic that made our economy better. I didn’t observe this—far, far smarter people have. And it never really left us, and now it’s tied in with sports—who prays in the end zone, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And it’s kind of a toxic mess.
Where I’m from, in southern Appalachia, sports is a big deal too, for a lot of reasons that you discuss in your book. The community comes together. There’s food. People hang out; we’re talking about places where there’s just often not much to do. Also, for a lot of kids, sports seems like a way out, and there aren’t many.
A way out of their town, a way out of their situation?
To college. Maybe they won’t be pros, but it’s a way to a Division 3 school, or to a campus of the big state school.
And you know, that chapter was really hard to write because there are so many benefits to sports, and to the opportunities sports provide. But I think it’s worth calculating the cost. You offer somebody a way out and they’re supposed to be grateful, and then by the time they get out their whole body is banged up and they didn’t get paid while they were making everybody millions of dollars in college football. One of my fitness instructors that I mentioned in the book who graduates from playing at the University of Iowa and his knees are all banged up, he’s in chronic pain, and now he’s going to go coach more football. And he’s very happy to, but he feels like he has to be grateful for it.
It reminds me of when you’re talking about the eldritch horrors of the megachurch. It provides community, too, especially as small rural churches are disappearing. But this feels like a lose-lose situation. You can get really involved in sports—the cost there is that you maybe destroy your body. Or you try to find an outlet in religion, and that can destroy you spiritually, because some of these megachurches are very conservative and anti-gay and anti feminist. So what are people supposed to do? Where’s the hope? Did you find any?
Yes, absolutely. We talk a lot about evangelicals and what we mean is just conservative white people. But that’s not, and never has been, the whole story of America. In researching this book I found so many interesting people and pockets of faith and communities that have been doing the work. Recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America declared themselves sanctuary churches. There have been radical nuns freedom-fighting in South America. Faith in America is never just one story. So I think what I found to be very hopeful, as somebody who grew up steeped in religious tradition, was when I looked around me and understood that it’s more vast and more complicated and more beautiful and more hopeful than I had ever thought.
I go to this tiny little ELCA church, and they do stuff like partner with the local mosque to mow lawns for people. It’s not perfect but it’s a start. One of the things I like, still, about communities of faith—some of them—is that they’re intentional, designed to do good in the world.
We also don’t tend to hear a lot about people who are rooted in their neighborhoods and trying to make a positive difference, when people are just kind of parachuting in to report the latest Trump country story.
Right, and you understand this—coming from the South, people will be like, “well religion’s really backward there.” But it was Southern churches that led the Civil Rights Movement! If you’re just flying in to report out of Trump country, sometimes you miss so much of the nuance of a place. It’s not just one thing.
We just had the Iowa State Fair, which meant everyone was talking about butter cows, and how Iowa is a hellscape with no almond milk.
I have almond milk in my drink right now.
Where I’m from, it seems like people only come to visit when there’s an election or something has gone horribly wrong. It’s about pills or it’s about poverty. It’s two-dimensional. But I’m curious: You write for the Columbia Journalism Review as well. Do you have thoughts about what national reporters could do better this time around—what stories are they missing and should be looking for?
I think it’s a matter of asking and listening. I get it—you’re in a place and you’re on a deadline, so it’s hard to know where to go and who to ask. But I really appreciated this New York Times column recently by Michelle Goldberg that is a good example of just listening. And I heard Leslie Jamison say this one time in a talk—and I think about it all the time—that the only thing you owe people is complexity on the page. If the Trump supporter’s just some old farmer constantly sitting in the cafe drinking that never-ending cup of coffee, then you’re missing something. It is easy to jump into a place and just treat everybody like zoo animals and be like, “Oh look at how weird it is here.” And it is weird! It’s weird to fry Snickers and put it on a stick and then eat it. But it’s also great! It just boils down to good storytelling, and listening, and empathy. Because you can also go the other way, not sneering about the almond milk but doing a Max Boot thing, like, “Look at the pure rural folk who are just raising pigs and don’t play videogames.” That also sucks.
How do you teach somebody to do that besides just teaching them how to be a good person?
I don’t know! I didn’t actually go to journalism school.
Me either! Maybe that’s the key!
I feel like the example of Hillbilly Elegy tells us that we can probably make a lot of money if we both pretended to be, like, rural consultants.
I will cage-fight him. I hate that book so much, because it plays into the stereotypes. It’s the same reason I hate like a self-help book or a Bible study book. It’s offering some sort of insight, but when you actually look at it, all it offers you is just repackaged condescension and stereotypes. There’s no insight, there’s no complexity, there’s no empathy. I keep getting asked, “so what’s the answer?” and I’m like, “Well the answer is, it’s hard. The answer is sometimes we have to be divided.” You can’t get to an answer until you sit with people and understand their experiences, and understand what it is actually that’s happening that divides us. We want to get to a solution so fast, but we can’t get there until we get the right diagnosis. And now the election is upon us and we haven’t done that yet.
And I think one of the things that people miss, too, is – yes, we need policies that speak to middle America. So the Democrats will lay out all these really great policies that actually could solve the problems. But that’s not the issue. The issue is who is telling the story of the place, and who is allowed to tell the story of a place, and who has the moral capital to be able to speak to that place. Hillary Clinton got blasted because she just didn’t speak to rural America. Well, she did. She had some great policies and she talked about them all the time. Hers just wasn’t the voice that was listened to.
I think that the Left—Democratic socialists, social democrats– and liberals closer to the center are grappling with the same question. Which is: How do you how do you reach rural voters? What message will appeal to them?
Well one is to not just talk about them as “these people.” This is our whole country, we have the internet too, we’re Americans. So I think part of the answer is to shift the language, to remove some condescension. Also, just hire the people who work in these places. It blows my mind that right after the election all these media places were like, “OK, we’re going to hire everybody from Middle America, we’re going to get religion reporters and rural reporters, but you have to move to New York to do the job.” That defeats the whole purpose!