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.
– 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