Corn in the commons


Corn, especially when frozen, bagged and then boiled, leaves me as flat as an Iowa field. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan warns that corn, one of our weightiest exports and the primary bloat of our cuisine, gives our nation a long line of wastefulness. When that problem is paired with the poisons in our political air we have something big to worry about, especially if we happened to be on the winning side in the recent elections and are inclined to gloat.

I’ll confess in public here: One puff of popcorn makes an addict of me. And I also love Garrison Keillor and his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show, corny as it can be. The popcorn will probably blow me up someday, but I’m convinced Keillor’s corn is the right medicine for what ails the U.S.A.

When I turn on Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” I end up listening to the kind of stuff that normally turns me off. There’s a lot of corny stuff––in the prurient leerings of private eye Guy Noir, or in the sound effects that orchestrate his moves, or in the wailing of some country singer who sounds as if she’s got a clothespin holding her nose shut, or in Garrison’s plaintive but always sonorous voice putting on like he’s the ordinary Lake Woebegoner guy he definitely is not. All this is just right too corny enough for me. And with it we also get regular doses of gospel singers to enspirit us while Keillor’s having good clean fun poking good Christian folk, many of whom are not faithful liberal Democrats. The fact that old-time religion tunes and gospel guilt have a regular place on “A Prairie Home Companion” is one thing that makes it such an All-American work of art.

Let’s not fib. Some old-time religious folk are hard to take, especially if their religion has gotten righteous politics in the past few years. They have so many opinions unclouded by facts they make me feel smart when the only proof I have that I exist is that I’m confused. They get me thinking they’re not confused like me, or like me period. They’re hung up on or fed up with this or that. They can’t quote the Bible in Hebrew or Greek. They live in a story-book unreality like the Harry Potter and Star War worlds where impossible things are true––like Noah’s ark showing up on a mountaintop in Turkey, or Idaho, or the world coming to a spectacular end like the latest mass destruction scene in a movie making millions for Hollywood.

They get me where it hurts. They think scientists shouldn’t be believed in like gods, they think professors aren’t as smart as they think, and they keep telling me we shouldn’t trust the government. This last point is really hard for liberal Democrats to buy, especially after they finally voted some of their people in. These righteous religious zealots, we say, take things out of context. And they do, a fact I keep repeating to myself as I waltz away from them with my own opinions hardening in my skull, unclouded by troubling facts pertinent to the issues bothering me too.

I’ll make another public confession here: I routinely take evangelicals, as historical forces, out of context. And if I were Garrison Keillor I’d be tempted to banish their god-awful wonderful gospel music from my show.

Thank goodness Keillor’s tent is bigger, and more open-aired, than mine. I find it useful to take our present moment, call it Obamic, forward into history’s past. What historical impact did all those Christian evangelicals have––the Brownists, Independents, Baptists, Lutherans, Familists, Quakers, Shakers, Separatists, Seekers, Puritans, and Ranters––most of whom passionately believed that the rights to speak, vote and worship as they pleased were more important than the dictates of landlords, priests and kings? In their Reformation and Enlightenment eras they were not mere liberals; many, not all, were radicals who opposed church authority, the monopolization of knowledge by conservative universities and scientific societies, the oppression of common folk, and the degradation of women by overlords and high churchmen determined to make obedient servants or dead witches of them.

In his engaging history, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science (Oxford, 1992), David F. Noble describes early evangelicals as “drawn primarily from the lower classes,” and representing “a wide diversity of theological opinion” whose revival spirit, belief in direct revelation and passion for change “swept aside all merely earthly authority, of church, of state, of family,” “allowed all members to debate [and] vote,” and established “spiritual equality between the sexes.” (195). In the nineteenth century some members of evangelical sects led the crusades for workers’ and women’s rights and for the abolition of slavery. Liberals, even secular ones, owe a lot to them for the difficult battles they fought––and generally won––for, as it turned out, all of us.

This long view of them doesn’t make it easy to see eye-to-eye with them. They’re pro-life except when it comes to certain wars and capital punishment. They’re for God except when He’s Muslim too. They’re for love and marriage, except for gays. They’re okay with science when they’re in the doctor’s office, but not when it comes to the Shroud of Turin or global warming.

Et cetera. Rather corny way to think about things. Why don’t they just go away?

Because they live here too, and have earned their stay. And they will have their say, while deserving it too. The question is who will influence what they say.

In many cases, no one. Evangelicals take their story-lines seriously, while liberals take them as stories, or lack them entirely. So what we call reason, knowledge, science, pragmatism, truth, beauty, and goodness––what we also call “facts”––are mismatched with what their stories morph into Belief. But that doesn’t keep me from trying to talk with them, and rather enjoying it now and then. I find them listening when I put them in context, explaining that Christianity is large and contains multitudes, here under a large picnic tent that keeps Americans of all colors, persuasions and creeds cool on the Fourth of July. In this tent there is plenty of room for civility and graciousness.

It would be silly to cede passionate believers to right-wingers eager to hijack their votes again. It would be wrong to make aliens of them.

Michael Pollan says that having diverse crops of home-grown corn and other crops would be a lot better for us than millions of square miles of GMOs standing at attention in rows like battalions about to invade other countries for their own good. There’s enough space in this big nation for liberals and evangelicals to stand on wide swaths of common ground, and there should be enough room on that ground for corny Christians and liberal flakes alike. My best friends are not evangelical old-time religion folk, but some of my relatives are, and it’s not just blood we have in common. We’re both pro-life, committed to abortion decline, but at odds about the government’s role and whether the decline is best achieved through educational and social programs. Both camps support underdogs––the oppressed, the ill, the poor. Both camps are deeply skeptical of a bi-polar scientific establishment that can cure diseases and warn us about global warming while giving us drones, nuclear bombs, and genetically engineered corn monopolies. Both camps favor prosperity, affordable health care, safe streets, clean air, peace, mother and apple pie. And who can blame evangelicals for wanting to be born again? Liberals could enjoy that too now and again.

So it’s hats off to Garrison Keillor, who has made good prairie home companions of them for years.