My seat was high in the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome, affording me a birds-eye view of the thousands of young people below. The arena was once the home of the St. Louis Rams, but now the big stage was occupied by Michelle Higgins, a preacher from Ferguson, Mo. And she was putting on a show. For 25 sweaty minutes, Higgins preached, sang and lectured about the challenges of race in America. It was an accusatory presentation, focused on the failure of society to support young African Americans, and it was a bit hard for me to follow, with all the ellipses connecting the singing, dancing and lecturing. But logical flow was besides the point, as it was all passion and anger, and the audience lapped it up.
This could have been a Bernie Sanders rally, but rather it was the triennial gathering of 15,000 college-aged evangelicals known as Urbana, and for me, it was part of a year-long journey into conservative America. Spurred by a fear that red and blue were drifting irrevocably apart in our country, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and safely Democratic life, and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray.
The last piece is important, because for all the reporting about the decline in church attendance, the U.S. remains a deeply religious country, certainly by comparison to other industrialized nations. More than three-quarters of Americans are religiously affiliated, and more than half consider religion very important in their lives. You can’t understand America without understanding the central role of religion and the church — a role that is not going away anytime soon — and you certainly can’t understand Republicans without understanding American evangelicals, the largest Protestant denomination and a bedrock of the Republican coalition.
Understanding and connecting with evangelicals didn’t come naturally to me, a nonobservant Jew whose familiarity with evangelicalism began with watching Footloose and ended with a distaste for Jerry Falwell. And it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people of all types. Witness President Donald Trump recently trolling of his own vice president about his religious beliefs. But unlike Trump, I wanted to do something about it, by traveling from megachurches to small Assembly of God congregations, to Urbana and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and interviewing numerous pastors, lay leaders and regular churchgoers.
If I thought I was going to meet only modern John Lithgows, I was to be sadly disappointed. Instead, I met young evangelicals interested in social justice and refugee issues (how to help them, not how to keep them out). I met families who had committed their entire lives to helping the poor and those who live in the shadows. I met a pastor who had forged a major social service partnership with his city’s openly gay mayor to demonstrate how evangelicals could be known by what they were for, not just what they were against.
Plenty of people who I talked to were struggling with rapid changes to society and seemed to lack the vocabulary to deal with some of the challenges of modernity. But for most, those social issues were entirely secondary. They wanted to talk about the role of the church in forming community, the responsibility to help others and the belief that private voluntary organizations could be the central convening place of a better society. I found myself nodding in agreement when Sam Adams, Portland’s first openly gay mayor, told me, “We can agree to disagree on gay marriage and disagree on abortion, but we probably agree on eight out of 10 things that are important to society … So we can act together genuinely in our communities on those eight out of 10 and break out of the trap that has been built around us.”
Many have been puzzled by the fact that so many religious people (83 percent of white evangelicals) voted for Trump and have dismissed this support as proof of evangelical hypocrisy. But it is not so difficult to understand. I did meet a few impassioned Trump supporters, but mostly I found people who viewed their support for Trump as a compromised choice between two not particularly attractive options. Some of their final choice had to do with policy — abortion, the Supreme Court, religious liberty — but it was cultural as well. I frequently heard complaints that the cultural elites, especially urban, Democratic elites, look down upon churchgoers and their religious values. We all know the money line from President Barack Obama about people “clinging to their guns or religion,” but the longer quote is even more revealing: “It’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them … as a way to explain their frustrations.”
In this light, religion is a defense mechanism against the complexities of diversity and modernity, rather than the rich community and moral center that churchgoers view it as. Obama apologized, but that doesn’t mean that he and millions of others don’t actually share those biases against the religious among us. It may be satisfying to stick it to the James Dobsons of the world, but the lack of respect for the “churched” has its costs. Support for people like Trump and Roy Moore grows when you think you need hardcore, uncompromising street fighters to protect you from the other side. Democrats forget this at their peril.
Over the course of the year, I often found myself in agreement with the evangelicals on the importance of community organizations, of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and even on the importance of the two-parent family in combating poverty (though not on what counts as a two-parent family). I didn’t agree with everything I heard or with everyone I met, but that was OK.
Many of us on the left talk about diversity and respecting differences in life, but that is often for the differences in race, sexuality and lifestyle that we find agreeable, not the differences in political persuasion, geography, and moral and religious vision that we find somewhat less appealing. When you don’t know the other side, it is easy to obsess about the two out of 10, and forget that the other eight are the basis for democracy and for the bonds of affection, as Lincoln once said, that unite us as Americans.
Ken Stern is the president of Palisades Media Ventures and the former CEO of National Public Radio. He is the author of the new book “Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.”