By the time I got to Neosho, MO early on a Saturday evening I was hot and tired and in need of a good shower. There are a cluster of hotels where US 60 and US 71 intersect, so I picked one, but it had no rooms. I tried another, and a third. The desk clerk at the last told me that Neosho was fully booked due to the Christian Convention in town for the weekend. She suggested Springfield, but 65 miles is a day’s journey for me, not an hour’s drive. I thanked the clerk, went outside, and spotted a city park a half mile or so up the road. I knew my decision not to make advance reservations might land me homeless one night, but I wasn’t thrilled about it so early in my trip. Opposite the park I uncovered an old motel tucked against some trees. They had one room left, which I took with gratitude, though it was immediately apparent why it was the last unclaimed room in Neosho.
Welcome to southern Missouri, where a Christian Convention can wipe out a city’s hotels. Missouri is a large and diverse state; I spent five days traversing the southern tier from Neosho to Cape Girardeau, a land of small farms and deep woods, the upper reaches of the Ozarks. It was the poorest expanse of the United States I visited, though not nearly so poor as I feared. Yes, I passed shacks with teetering porches and rusted trailers and carcasses of ancient trucks and snarling dogs that made me pump my legs double time, but most people live in modest brick ranches. There is a tendency in this part of Missouri to use your yard as an extension of your house. Some people may simply not have enough room indoors for that recliner chair or jukebox or baby swing that they stow on the lawn, while others might have wanted to show off that they own a freezer chest and a ping pong table. It is not a tidy landscape; it is an assertive one.
The people I met reminded me of their yards. They do not display the toothy smile and cheerful greeting ubiquitous in Oklahoma. They eyed me carefully, as if deciding whether to sic their dog on me, and I kept a measured distance in kind, being wary of dogs. Once we got passed the initial once over, however, the Missourians I met were matter-of-fact and straightforward, with firm opinions and strong convictions. They displayed no subterfuge or gaminess; they simply embodied their own motto as citizens of the ‘Show Me’ state.
Convictions and yards merged in the bounty of signs I saw on my travels through Missouri. Billboards, marquees, lawn signs, painted boards nailed to trees, whatever belief a person felt dear seemed worthy of a sign. Most signs proclaimed the moral issues of our day; abortion, marriage, prayer in school, taxpayer discontent, and the United Nations. By and large, the signs love our troops, hate our government, cherish all babies, deplore gays, exalt cowboys, and praise the Lord. Every church has a marquee banner sign upon which they proclaim scripture passages or catchy phrases. I particularly liked “He who rises with the Son does not get burned,” on a blistering summer day.
There is an entire series of signs near Van Buren that states ‘MoDOT Sucks’, MoDOT being the Missouri Department of Transportation. This seemed peculiar to me, as US 60 is a new and very smooth four lane highway. But apparently there are victims of the acquisition / construction process who have posted billboards to take their beef directly to the people.
My favorite signs were the white real estate signs planted on front yards just inside the curb with black stenciled bible verses, a different verse on each side. They even have the superscript attachment, where one usually finds the realtors name and number, but these proclaim “Ye Do Err, Not Knowing the Scriptures.” The signs are ubiquitous around Piedmont and reinforce the impression that this is one very well Bible-read Christian community.
After days of passing so many proclamations I was fascinated by what all these signs meant. The yard sign culture in Massachusetts, limited to political candidates and referendum questions, lacks imagination when compared with the flurry of opinions staked in Missouri. What is singular about the culture of southern Missouri that fosters signs on all manner of religious and social issues? First, I realized, the people planting these signs are not expressing opinions. They are announcing Truth. The signs are not points of discussion; they are fact, at least from the perspective of the sign owner. As fact, they are a public service message, giving the Truth, for free, to anyone passing by, many of whom, like me, are in sore need of the Truth. The sign planters do not think abortion and gay marriage and the United Nations are bad; they know it. They know it with the certainly of faith rather than the mere aggregation of knowledge acquired. One of the most prevalent words in the yard signs and church marquees of southern Missouri is ‘righteous’. A person must feel righteous about his convictions to root them so firmly in his front yard.
If we were grappling with the guiding principles of the Southern Baptist Church or the National Right to Life or any group whose existence is defined by accepting a set of beliefs as Truth, then the convictions of Missouri yard signs, or their counter beliefs, would be valid. However, when addressing the guiding principles of the United States of America, we need to understand that what is Truth for one subset of the population may not be Truth for all. A big nation needs some overarching Truths, such as everyone being entitled to equal rights under the law, but in the big polyglot of ideas that is our country we sometimes have multiple Truths. Multiple Truths may be an easy to swallow for a secular humanist or a Unitarian, but if your faith has revealed a singular Truth to you, then, by definition, other points of view cannot also be Truth. The idea of multiple Truths is unacceptable, you plant your heals, or your yard sign, and proclaim your unyielding position.
This is how we treat the major social issues facing our country, as unyielding positions. Arguments are expressed from the perspective of faith-based, singular truths instead of acknowledging the realty of multiple truths. People can rant that this is a Christian country all they want, but it is not. It is country founded upon freedom of religion, and Christians are the dominant sect at this time. Politicians and talk show hosts know that if they repeat an opinion long enough and hard enough it will take on the gloss of truth and the underlying precepts, our guiding principles, will get muddy. Certain segments of our media make this pronouncement over and over, so much so that many people think of the United States as a Christian country. But I repeat; it is not. It is country founded upon freedom of religion, and Christians are the dominant sect at this time. I would have to repeat that statement thousands of times to get anywhere near countering the ‘Christian nation’ message of southern Missouri, where the notion is purposely repeated over and over in an attempt to wear away our founding truth and replace it with one more to the liking of a subset of our citizens. There is a term for this; it is called propaganda.
The key to working through challenging social issues is to remember the underlying precept that guiding principles lead to a solution that maximizes benefits to many while minimizing individual harm. Since social issues are the policies we put in force to reflect our collective view of individual behavior, the key driver of any discussion about social issues is not how well it reflects the majority view, but how well it protects the minority from harm. To explore how this works I want to use two examples, the first is what I consider a mature social issue, abortion; we have been discussing it for decades. The second is a relatively new social issue, gay marriage.
Although I will wind up with no allies taking this position, I believe that our current policies regarding abortion are actually a good reflection of our guiding principle of ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ though how we got here was not through a particularly cooperative process. Abortion is an action that involves only one woman and one fetus. At present, we do not extend the rights of citizenship to fetuses in early gestation, and we allow a woman to choose to abort her fetus. But we place restrictions. These restrictions, waiting periods, counseling, gestation limits, make it difficult for the woman to have an abortion. There is a balance in our current condition; we ensure the individual freedom of the woman to choose, but acknowledge that abortion is not a trivial undertaking; it should be done only with a deep understanding of its consequences. People who believe that abortion is wrong are never compelled to have one; but that does not give them the right to force their belief on others. Their Truth is accurate for them, but not applied to all.
We are not nearly as far along in our discussion of gay marriage as we are of abortion, though today we approach the debate with the same rancor. It may take decades, but eventually gay marriage will evolve in much the same way that abortion has, with or without a Supreme Court ruling. Gay marriage will be available to citizens in more and more states, but it will not be available in some religious denominations. If we convened a convention to apply a straightforward application of ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ to gay marriage, the issue could be decided in a weekend. Gay marriage is not burdened by the truly thorny issue of defining a fetus. It allows same gender citizens who want to get married to do so. It allows them to pursue their own happiness and it never impinges on anyone else. The connection between being married and having children and raising families is mute in our society. Many married people do not have children, many unmarried people do. Marriage is a choice with certain societal benefits and obligations. People who want that designation should be able to achieve it. Eventually we will acknowledge gay marriage as a civil right without religious connotation but if we get there through the same sparring we have done with abortion, we will wind up poorer for it because we will have missed the opportunity for substantive debate and perhaps even mutual understanding.
If we were able to have reasoned debate about gay marriage, we would uncover two compelling ideas. First, gay marriage actually helps us clarify the difference between civil and religious recognition. Heterosexual marriage is indistinguishable in its religious and civil components. A couple can be married in a church or at City Hall. Same difference in the eyes of the State. Those who like the idea that we are a Christian nation will not welcome this discussion as they continually sow confusion about the proper separation of church and state to support their beliefs. Second, we would have to acknowledge that gay people are raising a good number of children these days. Study after study shows, and conservative religions support, that intact nuclear families provide the best environment for raising children. Even if we don’t believe in gay marriage for the sake of the gays, maybe we should support it for the sake of the children.
As I rode across southern Missouri I alternated between cycling on US 60, a wide and safe highway where the Ozarks had been contoured to high speeds, and state roads 14, 76 and 34, that climbed and dipped over and over. The narrow roads were much more interesting, the signs closer to the road. The more proclamations hit me in the face, the more I realized that they were about something deeper than faith-based truths. They were a different way of thinking about wealth.
We use the terms wealth and affluence almost exclusively in terms of money. If a person with a lot of money has a nice lawn with professional landscaping, maybe a fountain or even a piece of sculpture we don’t consider that proselytizing, though they are making a statement about their beliefs. When a devout Christian displays a biblical passage we do consider it proselytizing, though it is also a statement of their beliefs. The person with money is just more subtle in her advertising. Most people in America consider having money a good thing. We may begrudge the super-rich or people whose wealth comes without effort, but by and large we applaud people who have accumulated money through honest means. We certainly find no virtue in poverty. Even if we have not achieved wealth ourselves, we don’t begrudge it to others and so a conspicuous, affluent landscape is usually appreciated as a gesture of beauty rather than a social divider. The person of faith is more direct. He does not adorn his yard with symbols; he spells his message out in black on white.
This made me wonder if perhaps religious faith isn’t also a sort of wealth, different from money but equal. After all, each provides a sense of security and identity. The more I considered this and the more I pedaled, the more I pondered a third kind of wealth, intellectual wealth, which bestows similar benefits to those preoccupied with the machinations of the brain. Three kinds of wealth, the bread of the belly, the bread of the spirit, and the bread of the mind.
In the U.S. there is a positive correlation between money and education, and an inverse correlation between money/education and evangelical Christians, who tend to be poorer and less educated than other segments of our population. This train of thought helped me empathize with the sign planters. They may not have as many trappings of this world to show as those with money and degrees, but they have a bigger share invested in how they envision the next world. Do they put more stake in the next world because this one has given them short shrift, or does their faith in the next world leave them unconcerned with earthly success? Chicken and egg questions abound.
Of the three forms of wealth I thought about, I personally lean in the direction of intellectual wealth; I have an assortment of degrees, and consider my biggest asset what lies between my ears. I have never understood people who clamor for money in its own right, but have always been fascinated by people who are motivated by the world beyond this one, however they define it. Some people preoccupied by the next realm, particularly of Eastern persuasion, possess an unerring calm and resignation about this world. They are just passing through. While others who proclaim a special connection with heaven, particularly evangelical Christians and other proselytizing religions, take intense interest in this world. Their success in the afterlife is tied to their performance in this one. I have always appreciated the benefits that a deep faith can offer a person but have never understood the drive to convert others to the same point of view. If a faith is meaningful, abiding and deep, why does it need company? That is the crux of all social issues in this country, people who feel compelled to apply their personal beliefs over others. After riding through the evangelical neighborhood of southern Missourif or five days, none of the signs I saw converted me to any religion, but I had enhanced respect and appreciation for the messengers.