Bridging Social Differences in the Evangelical Ozarks

Printer-friendly versionSend to friendThis week FOX commentator Glenn Beck criticized churches that speak about "social and economic justice," urging viewers to abandon such congregations.  Not surprisingly, Beck's comments have elicited a firestorm of criticism, including here in the Evangelical Ozarks. In reality, many of the religious groups prevalent in the Ozarks advocate social justice on their web sites, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group of over 40 denominations. The NAE is meeting here this week at a local seminary to discuss the topic of respecting sex and reducing abortions. Recently, the organization proclaimed its support for comprehensive immigration reform, a position also endorsed by Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood. In defending this stance, the NAE invoked the "values of justice and compassion." Though controversial with some Ozarkers, such statements indicate that evangelical groups make use of the language of social justice. From Social Justice to Social Capital  Of course, many in the Evangelical Epicenters prefer to think in terms of Christian service and love, rarely speaking of social justice.  Whatever language they use, plenty of Ozarkers express their care and concern for the poor and needy.  Active in 54 counties in Southwest Missouri, the Council of Churches of the Ozarks reaches over 100,000 people annually through ministries such as Crosslines.  Its web site pledges "that there will never be a child, a senior or a person with disabilities in the Ozarks who is hungry, abused, or abandoned. Not even one." A recent study by a team of Missouri State University sociologists indicates that Ozarkers often express their social engagement through religious organizations.  According to a 2008 survey of 799 Greene County residents, they are more likely than other Americans to belong to charity and neighborhood groups. They are also more likely to belong to religious groups outside of church. The MSU survey was an attempt to measure the levels of "social capital" in the Springfield/Greene County area.  Popularized by the political scientist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the term refers to the social networks and norms of trust that connect individuals. The study showed that Ozarkers have fairly high levels of "bonding social capital," the type of social connectedness that binds together people who resemble each other in race, religion, and social class.  In general, Greene County residents display a high level of trust in each other. Where Ozarkers may trail behind the rest of the country is in "bridging social capital," the type of relationships that connect people to those outside their social group.  This perceived deficit was the topic of a February 27, 2010 conference on diversity and economic development I attended at Missouri State University. Participants included Springfield City Manager Greg Burris, Greene County Commissioner Dave Coonrod, the chair of the Chamber of Commerce, a panel of minority business leaders, and several clergy. Noting that Springfield is the second least diverse city in the United States, Community Foundation of the Ozarks representative Brian Fogle argued that "where we do poorly is bridging capital." Linking this problem to the area's history, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary President Byron Klaus pointed to the long shadow of the 1906 Springfield lynchings, an event that left a scar on the city's racial climate. The emotional climax of the meeting came when Assemblies of God translator Alvaro Acosta, an immigrant from Panama, told of the bullying his son received in school because of his Latino background. Invoking language that Glenn Beck might find troubling, Council of Churches leader Mark Struckhoff affirmed Acosta's statement, arguing that "there is a place for anger in responding to injustice." Several speakers agreed that a community with more bridging social capital would be more hospitable to people like Acosta. A Different Kind of Social Capital? There are many different types of social capital. In a 1995 article, Robert Putnam noted that "groups like the Michigan militia and youth gangs also embody a kind of social capital, for these networks and norms, too, enable members to cooperate more effectively, albeit to the detriment of the wider community." Are such groups detrimental to the wider community?  In the Evangelical Ozarks such discussions are not purely academic. In "Militia Comes to Springfield," the Missouri State University Standard reported on a Springfield meeting of the Missouri Militia.  Hosted by radio talk show host Vincent David Jericho (now broadcasting on the internet), the meeting discussed the ways that the militia could help out in times of local and international disasters, including the earthquake in Haiti.  Such a focus on social service can also be found on the group's web site, which reports on several blood drives and solicits donations for the American Red Cross.  The site also notes that the Missouri Militia rejects conspiracy theories and does "not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, political affiliation, etc." The mere existence of groups like the Missouri Militia remains a topic of heated debate in the national press.  The January/February 2010 issue of the Utne Reader features an exchange between Larry Keller of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Reason magazine's Jesse Walker.  While Keller warns of "resurgent right-wing militias," Walker dismisses such worries as the exaggeration of "the paranoid center." The Missouri Militia appears on a list of "active 'patriot' groups" maintained by Keller's organization.  This national debate parallels a local discussion about a controversial report on the "modern militia movement" from the Missouri Information Analysis Center. The February 2009 document identified Libertarians, anti-abortion activists, and members of the Constitution Party as potential recruits to the militia movement.  While Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder repudiated the report, legislators held a hearing about it in June.  What does the arrival of the Missouri Militia mean for the Ozarks?  So far the local press has said little about it. At the very least, the involvement of talk show host Vincent David Jericho suggests that the militia is becoming part of mainstream conservative circles.  The fact that Springfield's Young Conservatives of America includes a link to Missouri Militia information is another sign of its acceptance. What does all this mean for social capital? Back in November of 2009, Jericho had Missouri Militia leader Randall Sumpter as a guest on News Talk KSGF. Surprisingly, Jericho is also connected to those calling for greater diversity in Springfield, though he is not usually identified with that issue.  During his time at KSGF, Jericho often broadcast live from local coffeehouses, including Rendezvous Coffee Lounge and Big Momma's. The owner of Big Momma's is Lyle Foster, a speaker at the February conference on diversity and economic development (discussed above). An African-American business leader in Springfield, Foster holds degrees from Yale Divinity School and Brown University.  He has taught courses on cultural diversity.  In 2008 Foster told 417 Magazine he wants Big Momma's to "be a place where people can meet and engage and really feel comfortable to meet new people." By hosting everyone from start-up churches to theatre productions to Jericho's radio program, Big Momma's has exemplified the qualities of bridging social capital. It is hard to imagine a bigger tent. As I've noted before, life is complicated in the Missouri Ozarks. The links between different cultural constituencies reflect this complexity.  Ozarks coffee shops are home to a surprising mix of patrons. As Missouri State University student Adam Park wrote in "Cream, Sugar, and Christianity: An Ethnographic Study of Religion and Coffeehouses in Springfield, Missouri" (published in the campus journal Logos), "here, diversity is catered and pluralism fostered." When anarchists sip lattes next to a table of Bible students, hopefully people learn to get along.