LYNDEN, Washington — Saturday night, your humble correspondent spent some time at a local Freedom Rally held in the countryside just south of town at a place called Farmer Ben’s. As hundreds of drivers approached the farm from the closest major artery, we were greeted with plastic-wrapped giant white hay bales that said FREEDOM on one side and LIBERTY on the other.
Children played on those hay bales and on a nearby swing set. Their parents got ice cream and talked with candidates and mingled while they waited for the speechifying to start. One old family friend warned me I had better not portray them as a bunch of “gap-toothed hillbillies” in a write-up. I reassured him that his front teeth were appropriately packed together.
The stage candidates were to speak upon was a hay wagon festooned with American flags and patriotic regalia. So it was a little surprising when we were asked to stand “for the presentation of the colors” by three local scouts. The opening had us constantly in and out of our lawn chairs: for a prayer, for the flag, for the pledge, for the Star Spangled Banner, and then for the awarding of a flag to a decorated World War II veteran — the organizer’s infirm but deeply moved and therefore moving grandfather.
We were finally allowed to be seated when my landlord, state representative Vincent “Vince” Buys, began speaking. Buys struck a defiant note. He said his first political speech several years ago was to a group of Republican women. At the time, the state was trying to implement a noxious smoking ban that prohibits and penalizes smoking not only in every workplace but 25 feet from all of the entrances. And I mean all of them: bank drive-thru windows now carry “no smoking” warnings.
Buys spoke against this as a non-smoker and challenged the GOP gals to do so as well. If you are not willing to fight for the freedom of others, he said, yours will surely eventually be taken from you by a non-smoking overweening government. And our freedoms will surely be restored in the same way: bit by bit, piece by piece, by a coalition dedicated to paring back government and restoring freedom to all citizens.
He was followed by fellow Whatcom County-based state rep Jason Overstreet, who in the last session voted “no” more than any other legislator. Overstreet counseled the audience to stand on conservative principle, period. Do that, he said, “and you’ll sleep like a baby every time,” win or lose. However, given the response to Overstreet and other speakers, the natives appeared a little more restless than that. They want to win in November after 12 years of unitary Democratic rule.
They also want that win to mean something. Much of the speechifying Saturday night was about pushing the Republican Party in a more radical, Tea Party-ish direction. Matt Shea, state rep from Spokane, listed a number of issues — environmentalism, Obamacare, etc. — and said of those people who weren’t willing to follow the conservative line, “I question if you’re a Republican.”
Shea told a story about his Hungarian wife’s father who fought off a bunch of thieves during World War II with a pitchfork. They had attempted to make off with the family farm’s one cow. Likewise with modern bureaucrats today. “They want to take your cow,” he said, with cattle lowing in the background.
The event was draped in civic and actual religion. God was acknowledged in the opening prayer and obliquely and explicitly by speakers. Pro-life notes were sounded. “Evangelical” voters were appealed to by name. A Kirk Cameron movie was commended to us. The general victory that we were asked to imagine was more than just displacing Dems from the legislature and the governorship. It was about getting back to the basic conservative, constitutional, and incidentally Christian virtues of thrift and restraint.
Given all of that, I probably shouldn’t have felt cold-cocked when we got an actual sermon, but it stung all the same. A local pastor took the stage to deliver a revivalist sawduster, sans altar call. All of this politics stuff matters not a whit, he said, if you don’t have Jesus in your heart. He took pot shots at gay marriage and Mormonism and more institutional forms of Christianity. He followed that up with one of those tedious numerical challenges that preachers like to give: for every minute we spend doing Y, we ought to spend a multiple of that doing something more worthy. In this case, we ought spend four minutes preaching at people for every minute we spend talking about politics.
This was deeply annoying and also, it seemed to me, counterproductive to the purpose of the rally. Like most Americans, I am comfortable with invocations of the Almighty in politics, up to a point. But surely church and state should enjoy some distance. If I went to Mass Sunday morning and got a sermon about tort reform, I would not be a happy camper. Likewise, when I go to a political rally on Saturday night and get a sermon instead, it chafes.
There are practical and theological reasons why the normal American instinct is right here and the preacher wrong. The practical: Any effective coalition for freedom will have to stick up for sin as well as saintliness. The theological: You can’t have saintliness without the possibility of sin, because virtue eventually involves a choice. A rightly ordered politics can make that choice easier, but it can not and indeed should not make it for us.