“In Iowa, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
A minister in Earlham explained that overall outlook in his town of 1,200 souls in Madison County, Iowa, deep in the heart of Trump Country.
I had walked into the Church of Christ looking for directions to the Christian Church where my grandfather preached nearly a century ago.
A thoughtful man, who perhaps welcomed wandering souls, he was forthcoming about local politics, which were enmeshed with the law and its evolution.
He said the region voted for Trump and they remained loyal to their candidate. “They feel he has been let down by his own party.”
In answer to my question about the local economy, he said, “corn and beans.” In addition to the farms, the local landscape is simply lovely in late spring, with rolling hills, green forests and fields, and the occasional covered bridge for which Madison County is celebrated.
The pastor volunteered that a conservative congregation called for a conservative preacher. That put something my father had told me about my grandfather into context.
My dad told me in vague terms that my grandfather sometimes did not last long with a congregation because of his sermons, which was how he ended up moving to Alameda, California. And I now suspected that my dad was talking about the Early Chapel Christian Church where my grandfather preached in Earlham.
With which thought, another piece of an old puzzle fell into place.
An oft-told story when I was growing up was about my grandfather’s campaign to save his Japanese parishioners from internment as a result of their location on the Pacific coast during a war with Japan and Germany. He organized a caravan of Japanese to go out to Earlham where they could live outside internment.
But after they got started, grandfather received word from the leaders of the Early Chapel church that they would rather not welcome their fellow church members into Earlham, and the caravan had to turn around and return to inevitable internment.
To this day, Earlham remains almost entirely white, 98.3 percent according to the 2010 census. And the leading political issue, the minister told me, is guns.
He told me high school kids sometimes stop off on the way to school to do some hunting. “People here did not understand why they want to take away our guns.”
They see gun violence as “a city problem.”
Because I don’t know a sensible hunter who believes he needs to own an assault weapon for hunting, I now take the gun issue as a metaphor for an effort to hold onto a vanishing way of life, where descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants lived safe, simple, prosperous lives working on farms.
After guns, the next most important political issue in Madison County is gay marriage. The state Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in favor of gay marriage, which lead to a furious reaction in Earlham and throughout the state.
“We have no problems with the way someone lives,” said the minister. “People here felt judges were making decisions where they had no part in the process.”
Woe to the three high court justices who were up for retention elections in the next cycle. They were all turned out.
A related view extended to taxes and social programs. “If somebody needs a job, I can put them to work,” said the minister, paraphrasing the view of the local farmers.
We agreed there is also a wide sense of generosity within the local community, but on their own terms, such as charity funds and food banks.
Afterward, I stopped to walk through a couple covered bridges but I confess did not understand the purpose or the attraction. I returned to the East Village in Des Moines where I was staying in a new AC hotel in what was a run-down warehouse district and is now filling with nice restaurants, bars and apartments.
Out the back door of the restaurant was the restaurant Lucca with a prix-fixe menu, a spare, open décor, with tables between brick walls and spread around an open kitchen. It was excellent and expensive, on par, according to national reviews, with top restaurants in New York.
When I told the journalist about the views on government aid to the poor that I had found in Earlham, he noted dryly that the farmers of Iowa benefit from a huge outlay of public money for agricultural price support. On the legal front, he noted that the supreme court justices who came up in the next election cycle had all been retained, signaling a return of calm on the legal front.
The day’s big story, noted with chagrin by both our Des Moines counsel and the new reporter, was that one of the covered bridges had burned down, set alight by some teenagers.