Backward people in a backwoods place

Out in the backwoods down in the holler

Out in the backwoods, workin’ hard for a dollar in the

Backwoods yeah we get it done right

Work hard, play hard, hold my baby tight

Lordy have mercy it’s a real good life

In the backwoods, yes sir

“Backwoods,” country song by Justin Moore

 

Alrighty. Everybody ready to jump in the back of the pickup and take a ride down to a place where heterosexual white people tend cattle? To a little speck on the map far away from any Muslims, gays or Democrats? Try not to step in any cow patties, y’all hear.

The Washington Post published a front-page story today about Washington, Okla., which the newspaper portrays as a place where everybody lives the conservative life and sees their deeply held values under assault.

Full disclosure: I’m filing this post from my home in Oklahoma City as I take a short break from clinging to my God and my guns.

The top of the 1,800-word Post story:

WASHINGTON, Okla. — Here is the only light amid the Sunday-night darkness of the plains, its yellow glow visible for a mile around. People travel here down two-lane roads, past flags that snap in the wind and a sign that reads “Only God Can Save America.” They park in front of the steeple at the corner of Center and Main. Pastor Fred Greening greets them at the door.

Theirs is a church of 400 in a town of 600, where four generations stand together to bow their heads in prayer. Cowboys wear boots and roughnecks wear flannel. A 9-year-old sets down his toy truck and clasps his hands. Together they recite pledges of allegiance to the United States, to the Bible and to the Christian flag.

Oklahoma will hold its Republican primary on Super Tuesday, bringing the cultural debate over the heart of conservatism to the conservative heartland. The presidential campaign has turned into an argument about values and faith — a battle long underway on the prairie of central Oklahoma. Here, they fight to protect their town from what Pastor Greening calls the “slow and steady decay of moral America”: the erosion of traditional marriage; the methamphetamine addicts content to rely on public assistance; the political correctness creeping ever south from the college in nearby Norman, which they fear will force God out of their government offices and schools.

As an Oklahoma resident myself, maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this story impressed me (on first reading) as a stereotypical portrayal of this town. I asked my wife what she thought of the piece, and she replied, “I can’t quite pinpoint why, but I don’t like it. It makes the entire state sound ignorant and unyielding.” Certainly, I would urge GetReligion readers to read the story themselves and weigh in (on the journalism, not the politics).

Since it’s my job, I read the story a second time (and a third) and tried to pinpoint what I didn’t like.

Three observations:

It’s too simplistic and vague: Everybody believes this. Everybody thinks that. Can not a single person be found in this town who voted for Barack Obama in 2008? (Out of curiosity, I tried to find 2008 precinct voting figures for this little town but couldn’t locate them in a hurry.)

The most blatant example of the broad stroke used: The church that is the central focus of the story is never identified. With a bit of Googling, I deciphered that it may be a Southern Baptist church. But that’s just conjecture on my part.

We’ve got 400 people at a church in a town of 600. But how many of the 400 are from the town? In the age of commuting, some people drive 30 minutes to an hour to church. Is that the case here?

Do church members really recite pledges to the U.S., the Bible and the Christian flag? At every service? What form does this take? That line left me with a lot of questions.

Adding to the vague nature of the story, we have an assistant pastor quoted, but not by name. Later in the piece, we hear about local business owners named “Sid” and “Casey.” Do they not have last names? Does Sid’s store rent R-rated movies or sell booze and lottery tickets?

Do the “few dozen men (who) still gather each morning at the American Legion to play dominos, crack peanuts and spit tobacco juice on the floor” seriously not argue over anything? Do they seriously agree on every political issue?

– It’s a trip to the zoo: The thing I loved about the Post story on same-sex marriage opponents that I critiqued earlier this week was that the reporter actually talked to real pastors and gave them ample opportunity to express and explain their beliefs in their own words.

That story offered substantive dialogue.

This one, on the other hand, treats the people in this small town as zoo animals. The reporter takes his notepad to the zoo, jots down his witty observations and endeavors to introduce the animals to the readers back home. We hear a lot about what these people supposedly think and believe, but not much from their own mouths.

This paragraph offers a rare exception:

“I want my kids to grow up with values and ways of life that I had and my parents had,” he says, so his youngest son tools around the garage on a Big Wheel, and his oldest daughter keeps her riding horse at the family barn built in 1907, and they buy their drinking milk from Braun’s because he always has. “Why look for change?” he says. “I like to know that what you see is what you get.”

As an aside: I often buy my milk at Braum’s (with an “m”) Ice Cream and Dairy Stores. It’s a major chain in this part of the world, and anybody who spent more than a couple of days here in flyover country would know that. (Totally out of context: I grew up with Braum’s commercials featuring Jim Varney. Know what I mean, Vern?)

– It’s style over substance: The story is presumably tied to the 2012 presidential election. But nobody ever discusses the issues or candidates in this story.

Instead, we get eloquent prose such as this:

What you see are calves dropping in the spring, coyotes circling at night, shooting stars, roaring tornados and thick flocks of birds migrating across skies that round over the horizon.

Is this a creative writing project or a newspaper story?

The piece ends this way:

Where, the next morning, a Wednesday, Sid opens at 6. A dozen men show up at the Legion to play dominos at 7. The kids at school recite the Pledge of Allegiance at 8:30 and spend a moment in silent prayer.

A storm rolls across the sky. Flagpoles rattle in the wind.

Another day is happily the same.

Night falls, and one yellow light interrupts the darkness of the prairie. The congregants travel past the water tower and the feed mill and the cotton gin to the corner of Center and Main. Pastor Greening waits at the door.

Exactly what the pastor will say to the congregation is anybody’s guess. But it surely will be conservative. Very conservative. Take the Post’s word for it.

Oklahoma images via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • E

    I read this piece this morning, and like you, I didn’t like it but it took me a while to figure out why. I live in the other Washington but I have family in Oklahoma, and I thought this story read like an anthropologist reporting from a trip to the jungle to observe unconcacted indigenous tribes. You nailed it with animals in the zoo.

    And we Washingtonians wonder why the rest of the country calls us elitists. Ugh.

  • Jerry

    I tend to agree with your style comment: it’s a word portrait that could be turned into a few oil paintings very easily. That’s not always a bad thing, though. Sometimes such word portraits can be helpful.

    But I’d like to offer a different perspective. From recent experience, I sometimes find that the comments on a story surface important issues that the story neglects. Of course some of the comments are pretty raw but some reasonable questions can be abstracted from them: Some questions that were raised were what is the real situation underlying the idealized portrait? Are the people really against change wanting to stop the world? How isolated are they really? What about those that don’t go to that church?

    So in an ideal universe, a reporter would read all the comments, do some research and file an updated story with much more detail.

  • Jeff

    “In an ideal universe, a reporter would read all the comments, do some research and file an updated story with much more detail.”

    In an ideal universe, professional journalists not amateur ideologues and ignorant bigots would be the ones who bring us the news.

    But we don’t live in an ideal universe.

  • Martha

    Wait a moment, a stóirín, until I shoo the hens off the kitchen table, chase the pig out of the parlour, close the half-door and sit down on my three-legged stool beside the turf fire until I read this story.

    *goes away and does that; comes back*

    “the political correctness creeping ever south from the college in nearby Norman, which they fear will force God out of their government offices and schools”

    Yep, can’t trust them big-city folks with their fancy book-larnin’. How many of them would know what to do at three in the morning when the cow is calving out in the haggard?

    “A few dozen men still gather each morning at the American Legion to play dominos, crack peanuts and spit tobacco juice on the floor.”

    I’m sorry, I burst out laughing at that sentence.

    “Almost all of the houses in town are single-story ranchers, and more than 70 percent belong to married couples — few Hispanic, fewer black, none Muslim and none openly gay.”

    Possibly this is because of the regular Friday-night witch burnings and hog roasts?

    “What you see are calves dropping in the spring, coyotes circling at night, shooting stars, roaring tornados and thick flocks of birds migrating across skies that round over the horizon.”

    And then you wake up on the floor of a strange bedroom twenty miles over in a different townland, clad in your underwear, and you go “Dang, that’s good corn likker!”

    We need Iowahawk to do for this what he did for Mr. Bloom’s article – or is there any native Oklahoman out there to uphold the fair fame of their own, their native land in similar fashion?

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    To me the strangest thing about this piece is the idea that this town is some sort of Brigadoon where things don’t change. My impression is that small farming towns have faced far more severe changes over the past 30 years than have cities, and that farmers would have a lot to say on issues such as agricultural subsidies big corporations. Maybe someone should have asked.

  • northcoast

    A quick look using Google Street View shows that Washington is a long way from the hollers of Appalachia. Flyover country as well as guns and Bibles apply. The writer notes without comment that a college graduate ranch owner is descended from Indians uprooted from their homes farther east. God Bless America.

  • SouthCoast

    ” coyotes circling at night” Reminds me of a possibly apocryphal report I once read: the British mystery author John Creasey once pseudonymously penned a Western containing the memorable line “a flock of coyotes passed overhead”. Dunno, but my local “flock” likes to hang out in the 20 acres behind my back fence and hold raucous coyote-keggers. Never noticed much circlin!

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Just noticed that there’s a nice photo package with the story, including one that apparently identifies the nameless church: the First Baptist Church of Washington.

    Then again, I don’t see the pastor, Greening, on the FBC website. The only place I can find him is listed as pastor of the Goldsby Baptist Church about 13 miles north.

    Of course, when you spell Braum’s wrong and neglect to get a name for the assistant pastor, perhaps it’s possible for a guest pastor to be confused as the regular pastor. I don’t know. Strange story … in case I didn’t mention that.

  • northcoast

    Ann, I think Washington and Norman are located in an area where small farms and ranches occupy less than half of the landscape. In my local library the periodicals section includes practically oriented magazines with information about ‘backwoods living,’ so it must be a viable life style. (I didn’t see anything in the article about broadband internet access, but I’m sure the people have indoor plumbing and all of that.)

  • http://www.carbohydrateblockerreviews.weebly.com Mark Henry

    From recent experience, I sometimes find that the comments on a story surface important issues that the story neglects. Of course some of the comments are pretty raw but some reasonable questions can be abstracted from them.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    northcoast,

    According to Mapquest, Washington, Okla., is 10 miles off Interstate 35 and 15 miles from Norman – a booming suburb that is home to the University of Oklahoma. Norman is, of course, a part of the Oklahoma City metro area. It’s not the kind of small-town living where you can’t be at a shopping mall in 15-20 minutes.

  • Dave

    I note with interest the injection of meth addiction into a list of otherwise red-meat issues in the current election cycle. Perhaps this is an actual, local problem that the reporter missed or skipped over?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I’m no expert, Dave, but my understanding is that meth is a big problem in poorer areas because it has the potency of higher-priced drugs like cocaine but is much cheaper to make. There’s an annoying “Stop Meth, Not Meds” commercial that keeps running on my favorite radio station about lawmakers wanting to make certain over-the-counter drugs available by prescription only to make home methamphetamine cooking more difficult.

    Again, I’m speaking from limited knowledge … so take my analysis for what it’s worth. :-)

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    As someone who lives about 15 miles from Norman on the other side of I-35, I can tell you that we are well able to find many suburban and urban lifestyle features without once resorting to a covered wagon. And as someone who has been a pastor in a town the size of Washington, I can also say that the kind of uniformity of view Mr. Saslow describes likely exists somewhere other than in reality.

    Another couple of points — is the 400 figure church membership or church attendance? Those figures are not always the same, and Washington’s nearness to Norman, Noble and Purcell mean that it could be drawing from a wide range of areas if it’s supposed to be attendance. Goldsby, the home of one of the larger Native American casinos in the state, has city limits that stretch pretty far even though the areas they cover might be closer to another city center entirely.

    Mr. Saslow is right about our recent trend of supporting Republican presidential candidates, except that it’s not all that recent. The last Democrat we favored was Lyndon Johnson. Before him, only Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, John Davis (1924) Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan (1908) carried our electoral votes for Democrats. Since McClain County’s vote split 75/25 for the GOP, I imagine Washington favored McCain.

    You asked “Is this a creative writing project or a newspaper story?” If it’s the former, it gets sent back marked “incomplete” with a suggestion to rewrite and lay off the Bulwer-Lytton Style Manual. If the latter, it should have been sent back with a couple of notes suggesting a little bit more attention to details and a lot more research and time on the ground. As well as the suggestion to lay off the Bulwer-Lytton Style Manual.

  • sari

    There are two different problems, Bobby. One is that it’s less expensive to make and can be made locally with easy to acquire materials. In economically depressed areas, making and selling meth can be the difference between eating and not eating. Two, the demand for mood modifiers of all sorts is sometimes greater in small towns than it is in more urban areas.

    As a young teen, I moved from Miami, semi-urban at the time, to a cow town in Central Florida which is now (but not then) a suburb of Tampa. Believe it or not, drugs were a much bigger and more visible problem in the cow town. I, a Miami native, had never seen dope before moving there, and would never have imagined my previous school’s high achievers stoned (or pregnant). It was quite an eye-opener: the difference in academic resources, the lowered expectations, the greater number of high school pregnancies, the easy access to drugs and the openness with which they were used, and the palpable sense of ennui. Life could not have been more different.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Brett,

    Your facts are all correct on the presidential candidates, but as you know, most of Oklahoma’s governors have been Democrats — including a two-term Democrat who left office just last year. Until a few years ago, the state Legislature was controlled by Democrats, and always had been. Of course, these were Oklahoma Democrats and not necessarily Washington, D.C., Democrats. :-) Not sure what my point is there, except that life is generally more complicated — even in a small town — than a story where everybody believes the same thing.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Agreed — except for the Turpen or Synar here and there our Democrats (who used to include me) are a little different (and I wonder how well even they would have fit in with a Pelosi-led party). And certainly part of the nuance Mr. Saslow couldn’t or didn’t see.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt
  • northcoast

    Bobby, I prefer Google. OK about the shopping thing, but I know from experience in rural Alabama that I could get a few miles from the interstate highway and ignore it all for as long as I wanted.

  • Jerry N

    At the risk of sounding dumb, what is “the” Christian Flag? I didn’t see a picture or anything and have no idea what they’re talking about.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    The idea of a lot of farmers and cowboys agreeing on everything seems pretty bizarre. In my experience, farmers and cowboys pick those ways of life precisely because they are hard-headed, taciturn, and impatient with people.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Jerry, the Christian flag is really the flag of the American Sunday-school movement. When I was a boy in school we used to say this pledge in school: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Savior, for whose kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe”.

    The flag, which is used mostly by American Protestants, looks like this: http://www.christianflag.us/

    My Church uses several flags. This is the most likely to be seen in America: http://www.mrflag.com/thumb.php?file=2759&size=300 But we don’t have any pledges to them, that I know of.

  • northcoast

    mattk (21) I think the range wars are history (and maybe never were a big issue in that broken countryside.) Ranchers and farmers both use barbed wire and just have different ways of making their living from the land.

    Apart from that, you just described me, and I am an engineer.

  • Leona Mars

    I read the same article and thought it was a joke. I have no idea who submitted that article, but honestly, I think he/she should be horse whipped, Ha, ha. I have lived in Goldsby, Ok since 1984. Goldsby happens to be located about 5 miles north of Washington, OK. Yet, according to some people in Washington, we are part of Washington. However, Goldsby is incorporated as a town. According to the 2012 US Census, Goldsby has an estimated population of 1,891. I believe Washing has about 500. We provide Washington with water service and use of our fire department. We have no public schools, therefore, we are tied to the Washington, OK school district. We also have no post office and so our mail is processed through the Washington post office, zip 73093. That zip code, in itself, is a big annoyance to me because Norman and other businesses that uses the computer will automatically process our town as Washington instead of Goldsby. Example: One delivery person drove all over Washington looking for our street address, he finally became frustrated and called us and we enlightened him. Goldsby is home to The Riverwind Casino, a small airport, The David Jay Perry Airport, and Libby’s cafe. We also have several small businesses in our area. Pastor Fred Greening is the pastor of the Goldsby Baptist Church, not the Washington Baptist church as the article stated. Sid’s Quick Stop is located in Washington and is the only store in town. The cotton gin is closed and has been since sometime in the 80′s, more or less. There is really no businesses in Washington. My family and I go to Norman to do our business and shop. I really think the writer should have gotten their facts in order before publishing the article.