GLENCOE, Minn. – More than a year ago, Pastor Jonathan Pixler and about a half dozen parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church began meeting weekly to pray for their country, their state and their city. The meetings were nonpartisan and focused on Scripture passages relevant to the events of the day.
But the direction of the country — and what they saw as their faith under siege — was never far from the surface.
“When we look at our country we see a lot of immorality taking place, the values of families, we just see so many changes there,” Pixler said.
Fueled by evangelical voters who were able to look past what others saw as disqualifying transgressions, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump carried McLeod County by more than 38 percentage points, among the highest margins of victory in the state. Not one county precinct went for Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s lifestyle and actions — he’s a New Yorker who has cursed from the stump, been married three times, cheated on his wives, and been caught on tape talking crudely about grabbing women — are very much at odds with small-town values and faith. Yet in the 12 weeks since Trump took office, it’s hard to find evidence here that McLeod County’s confidence in its choice has waned.
Pixler believes Trump’s victory was divined, much like the Biblical story of Cyrus the Great. Despite being a pagan king who did not “know” God, the Bible tells of Cyrus acting as an unconscious tool to encourage the Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.
“Like Cyrus, we needed someone like him who was just going to come in like a bulldozer and bull through things,” he said. “People felt like, finally, someone was listening to them and he was going to address issues that were important to us.”
So far, Pixler says, the Trump administration has exceeded his expectations on such things as jobs, trade, deregulation, the military and climate change. He also hopes that Trump keeps a campaign promise that religious voters took to heart: the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits nonprofit organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Late last week, a day after Trump ordered airstrikes against Syria, his pick to fill a vacant seat on the divided Supreme Court — conservative judge Neil Gorsuch — won Senate confirmation.
‘Pray for Our Nation’
Dozens of signs adorn front yards and windows in businesses and churches around McLeod County. In stark black letters, they say “Pray for Our Nation.” They’re less a distress signal than a call to action.
If there is an intersection of religion and politics in Minnesota, it’s here in the fertile landscape of rolling farmland and steadfast conservatism an hour’s drive west of the Twin Cities.
Today, it is estimated that more than 48 percent of McLeod County’s residents identify as evangelical, the highest rate in Minnesota. The county has also been reliably Republican, voting for the GOP presidential candidate 90 percent of the time since William McKinley was elected in 1897.
“They’re hardworking, conservative people,” said seven-term state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, whose district includes portions of McLeod County. “They have general distrust of large government and government programs. They believe in God and they’re as self-reliant as they can be in today’s age.”
That sense of faith and self-reliance is evident at the CrossPoint Church in Hutchinson, just 14 miles up Hwy. 22 from Berean Baptist. For several weeks after the November election, Pastor Rick Stapleton delivered a series of sermons called “The Bethlehem Revolution.” He used Scripture to look at “isms” in today’s society such as ageism, sexism and how to address the issues as Christians.
“You don’t have to wait for a government program to go ahead and take care of people,” he told the congregation. “You don’t have to worry about the Republicans or the Democrats or whose ever plan it is to take care of the disadvantaged. We, as a church, can just go ahead and do what King Jesus wants us to do.”
Matt Troyer, pastor of groups and outreach at CrossPoint, said there is no politicizing from the pulpit. But he says he does see greater optimism that Trump will do more for those with Christian faith than Clinton.
“Our greatest identity is not in who we vote for or whatever political party we identify with most or if they’re in power we’re OK and if not we’re not OK,” he said. “Ultimately what God is trying to accomplish in the world is through the church and not through government.”
After services one recent Sunday, several members of the congregation talked about how their faith influenced them in the voting booth in November.
“It’s always a struggle about which candidate can continue to come close enough to what God says is his truth,” said Trump voter Jacob Rattray, who admits he saw little difference in the two candidates. “I don’t know that anytime there’s an election that I don’t wrestle with how that is going to fit with those beliefs.”
Cory Vance, a youth director at the church, said he weighed which candidate would most likely keep his religious liberties from being eroded. He chose Trump.
“When we’re voting, we’re not voting for a pastor,” he said. “We’re voting for someone who we think can best lead this country and best protect what we have as freedoms.”
Asked recently how he felt about his vote as Trump nears 100 days in office, Vance said he was comfortable.
“I know that the results don’t lie in my hands but that God is in control of all of that,” he said. “I did my due diligence and put all that trust in His hands.”
Elsewhere in Hutchinson, Donna Brinkman has her “Pray for Our Nation” sign tacked to the front porch of her tidy home on one of the city’s main streets. She takes its directive to heart and asks for the country’s return to values she thinks are under attack. She wears out Bibles, which have spaces on the borders for the copious notes she takes interpreting verses.
Unlike her fellow evangelicals, though, she doesn’t believe Trump is the answer to her prayers. She has found herself in debates with fellow parishioners at her church.
“I’m scared to death of Trump,” she admitted. “The others are voting because of the Supreme Court, which I care about, and they’re voting against abortion, and I care about that, but the man Trump himself scares the absolute,” she paused, “bejeebers out of me.”
Faith and community have long been intertwined in the fabric of McLeod County. When French filmmaker Louis Malle was tasked with finding the meaning of America, the result was the 1985 documentary profile of Glencoe, McLeod’s county seat, where he filmed church services and wedding ceremonies among everyday life. The film was titled “God’s Country.”
“People are down-to-earth here. Everybody knows everybody,” said Tammy Mrkvicka, of Brownton, who was hosting a bridal shower for her soon-to-be daughter-in-law at the Glencoe City Center. The wedding is scheduled for May. “Faith drives the community and how we want it to be. Church is our core.”
At the Hutchinson Elks Lodge on a recent Sunday, Chelsie Bloch hosted a pancake breakfast and silent auction to raise money for her daughter Haylie’s upcoming pageant in Bloomington. Two-year-old Haylie is the reigning Toddler Miss Hutchinson. These pageants are all natural. No glitz. No makeup. Bloch says she has approached these contests cautiously but has been grateful for the support of a small-town community.
“With a smaller town we have a sense of being in it together,” she said. “There are all types of religions in Hutchinson, practically a different church on every corner. It’s good to have that circle that supports you.”
If it weren’t for the festivities on this day, Bloch says her family would likely be worshiping at a nearby church affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
On Fourth of July weekend last year, the pastor’s sermon there dealt with confronting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting states from banning same-sex marriage. The title of his sermon, posted on the church’s website, was “When did freedom become licentiousness?” He talked of a government “as it erodes in these last days.
“They may take away our rights in the name of protecting other people’s freedom, but in actuality what they are doing is protecting other people’s licentiousness,” he told the congregation. “I could get up here and wave the flag and we could say ‘God Bless America.’ But I think we need to get serious about where America is.”
More than any other group of Americans, 75 percent of white evangelicals believe American culture has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s, compared with 56 percent of all whites, according to a 2016 survey by Washington, D. C.-based Public Religion Research Institute. In contrast, 62 percent of blacks and 57 percent of Latinos think the culture has changed for the better, according to the survey.
Among white evangelical voters, even Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again” appealed to a sense that something was being lost and needed to be reclaimed. It harked back to a time when evangelical values held more power and sway, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive at PRRI and the author of “The End of White Christian America,” which examines the social and political implications of a United States that is no longer a majority white, Christian country.
Once, they might have been known as “values voters,” defined since the days of President Ronald Reagan as voters who make decisions based on issues such as religion, abortion, capital punishment and same-sex marriage. But Jones has another term for them now, which he says better explains how Christian conservatives might embrace an unlikely candidate such as Trump, who activated a different set of concerns, aspirations and fears that had to do with cultural change in the country. Jones calls them “nostalgia voters.”
“This election put that ‘values voter’ description front and center,” he said, pointing out the contrast between Trump and many evangelicals who voted for him. “You name it, he was in no way their model candidate. And yet, at the end of the day, they end up lining up behind him.”
In 2011, PRRI asked evangelical voters if they thought it was possible for someone to commit immoral acts in their personal life and still fulfill their duties in public life. Three in 10 said ‘‘yes.’’ They asked the same question in 2016. This time 72 percent said it was possible.
“Trump was able to actually flip evangelical ethics and turn it on its head,” Jones said.
‘We talk wood’
Back in McLeod County, it isn’t always all about religion and politics.
Five days a week, the Glencoe Woodworking Club meets in the basement of the Glencoe City Center. It’s where Ann Wangerin goes to perfect her coasters and bowls, which have won her a blue ribbon at the McLeod County Fair.
As might be expected in a world of sharp blades and fast-moving machines, there are numerous warnings and reminders on the walls: “Caution: This machine has no brain. Use your own.” “Please Cut Acrylic Only on Bandsaw. Thanks.” “Water Based Finishes Only.”
But left unposted is another steadfast rule: No debating politics or religion.
“Too much conflict,” Wangerin said during a recent Saturday. “We talk wood. The language of wood. That’s all.”