This story involves a particularly fraught aspect of the culture-war, so before we get to that let’s first talk about Jell-O salads.
See, this story involves a church dinner back in the early ’80s. I’m a big fan of church dinners. Church dinners are a Good Thing — one of the things that makes a congregation a real community and not just a bunch of strangers who happen to be sitting in the same audience. They were one of the things that the independent,* fundamentalist Baptist church I grew up in got right, regularly gathering for church dinners in the Fellowship Hall (which is what we called the church gym when it wasn’t being used for volleyball or basketball).
When I say our church got these dinners right, I don’t mean the food. The food was pretty hit-or-miss. These were potluck dinners — a term somewhat disputed in our congregation due to that second syllable, which some felt was a blasphemous denial of divine providence. (Fundies, as a rule, do not say “Good luck.”) Our church family included some very good cooks. It included many others who were capable preparers of the more edible elements of Reagan-era white suburban cuisine — Shake n’ Bake, fried chicken with “Wessonality,” Betty Crocker au gratin potatoes and the like.
But we also had our share of folks who liked to experiment with the more regrettable, and sometimes downright horrifying, recipes that found their way onto the tables of white Americans in the late 20th century. Such as Jell-O “salads.”
I’m not sure what it was that made us feel these dishes belonged in the salad category. It may have been the use of green Jell-O. Or maybe the carrot shavings. Those were two of the three standard ingredients, the other being mini-marshmallows. Some folks added raisins or canned pineapple and there was some debate as to whether these made it “better.” I would say they made it different, but I don’t think “better” is a useful category when the starting point involves lime Jell-O, mini-marshmallows, and carrot shavings.
My favorite variation of this salad was the fancy version that included layers of fluffy, lighter-green Jell-O that had been mixed with Cool Whip. I think I just like the idea that I was eating big spoonfuls of Cool Whip and marshmallows and yet somehow getting credit for eating a “salad.” That seemed pretty cool for a kid of the age I was when this story takes place, which was somewhere in the early middle-school years, when I wasn’t quite old enough to participate in the grown-ups’ conversations, but I was old enough to listen, particularly when they were talking about something interesting.
And this conversation was very interesting, in part because I didn’t quite understand what they were talking about. The subject involved pregnancy, which is sex-related or at least sex-adjacent, and thus a matter of bewilderment and fascination for middle-school-aged me. Grown-ups usually never talked about this stuff when us kids were around. Especially not at a church dinner.
Their conversation involved something from the church prayer list. Somebody’s relative, apparently, was having a “difficult pregnancy.” She’d been confined to bed, and was going to need to go to the hospital weeks before her due date. The grown-ups seemed very concerned.“Which hospital?” someone asked. This seemed like an urgent question, but all of the grown-ups were pleased with the answer.
“Well, good. As long as it’s not a Catholic hospital.” They all nodded in agreement at that. Everyone seemed to know that a Catholic hospital was no place for a woman with a difficult pregnancy. “In case anything happens,” they said, ominously.
Then my mom chimed in. She wasn’t always the chime in type, but in this case she spoke up with real confidence. She talked about her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband, who was an obstetrician. She repeated his dictum: Put the mother first. Everyone agreed that this was the right and proper thing to do. It was the wisest and most moral approach. Everyone knew this.
That church-dinner conversation took place in the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan was president and everyone at that table who was old enough to vote had voted for him. Because Communism. Jerry Falwell was then leading the Moral Majority and folks at our church supported that as well. We liked the name. We were sure it referred to us.
And there we were, all agreeing that the life and health and flourishing of the mother was a greater concern than the life of the unborn child she was carrying. This was not controversial. It was a unanimous, obvious truth. And at that time — in 1981 or 1982 or whenever exactly that rendition of that conversation took place — similar conversations likely took place at other white evangelical churches all over America. (They likely took place at more than a few Catholic churches as well. And still do, furtively.)
Within a few years, this was no longer what most of those good Christians at that church dinner believed. Because of Mondale, maybe, I guess. Or because of that movie we watched one Sunday evening with the plastic dolls scattered along the shore of the Dead Sea. Or … well, the change was never explained or discussed. It just happened.
Some of those same people at that table who had once insisted that anyone with a “difficult pregnancy” ought to avoid Catholic hospitals were now occasionally picketing outside of the non-Catholic hospitals in the area, because those hospitals believed they should put the mother first, and everyone knew that was monstrously evil.
The thing we had all agreed on, as a matter of course, just a few years earlier was now forbidden to believe or to speak of. Almost no one noticed the change as it was happening, and therefore almost no one had any idea how or why it had happened.
I say almost no one because of Mom. She always liked her brother-in-law, and she went on quietly believing that he was probably right. (And he was.)
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* Small-i independent, meaning unaffiliated with any denomination and not to be confused with capital-I Independent Baptist Churches, a more stridently fundamentalist denomination. Generations before, our church had been part of the Northern Baptist association. It left that group to join the Conservative Baptists — who splintered off due to fears of creeping liberalism. Later, it joined the General Association of Regular Baptists — which splintered off from that group due to fears of creeping liberalism among Conservative Baptists. And then, ultimately, it left the GARB because … can you guess why? Yep.