The United States Post Office in Pella, Iowa is a little jewel. The small but stately red brick colonial structure sits just off the town square. It was built in 1937, as part of the New Deal, long before Pella’s downtown became filled with faux Dutch fronts.
The interior is filled with exquisite details in tile and woodwork. But the mural in the lobby is the piece de resistance. The Federal Arts Project, a 1935 initiative of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, funded nearly 1,400 murals in post offices across the United States. Most of these murals are marvelous Americana, even if many don’t fully square with today’s sensibilities.
Pella’s mural, painted by Byron Bennet Boyd, consists of three scenes. On the left, Hollanders are being humiliated, possibly arrested, by armed civil authorities. A distressed woman appears to hold a Bible just beyond the reach of a grasping man. The middle and largest scene is a group of people kneeling in prayer on a ship, led by the leader of the Pella settlement, Dominee Scholte. The scene to the right shows the small but thriving beginnings of Pella with Dominee Scholte’s church, front and center.
The mural came up in a discussion of Kristin Kobes DuMez’s book Jesus and John Wayne. DuMez presents a history of recent white, American evangelicalism, contending that support for the misogyny, racism, and violence seen in the last four years didn’t suddenly spring out of nowhere. This toxic masculinity is no inexplicable aberration, but has been bubbling and churning within American evangelicalism for at least the last 50 years.
DuMez’s critique is aimed at evangelicals that I hold at arm’s length, or farther. They aren’t my tribe. The more recent is DuMez’s history, the less I know about her culprits — thankfully.
So my conversation turned to where might we find similar seeds that sprouted in our Dutch Reformed enclave. Were there antecedents in our leaders and stories that make the incredibly strong evangelical support for President Trump not altogether surprising?
Exhibit A could be the Pella Post Office mural. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to “denounce” it or suggest it should be painted over. I actually love it, in the same way I love the cheesy illustrations in 1950s children’s Bibles.
But the mural imparts a powerful myth. Persecution for one’s faith. Harassment fomented by the civil authorities. Prayer. And finally, freedom in a blessed homeland. Historians debate how much “religious freedom” was actually acknowledged at the time as a reason for emigration from the Netherlands. But that debate is academic now. It has been deeply imprinted on the story and psyches of the people of Pella, not to mention the post office wall.
An unsympathetic, anti-religious government overreaching into the decent and pious lives of quiet believers — certainly this story is still alive and well, and informing today’s politics in places like Pella.
The leaders of the 19th century Dutch immigrant parties — Albertus van Raalte in Holland, Michigan, and Hendrick Scholte, here in Pella — were dynamic people. Part pastor, part salesman, part visionary, a little bit shyster and autocrat. In today’s world, they would probably be making videos about “leadership.” Scholte could also be described as “schismatic.” He seemed to live by the motto that he was suspicious of any church that would have you as a member. Here in Pella, he jumped from church to church, founding his own and then moving on.
I contend, somewhat humorously, that Scholte’s schismatic spirit and drive for purity lives on in today’s Pella. Based on my observations, it seems that about every generation there needs to be a church split here. Charismatics forced out/leaving to start their own churches in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the United Reformed left the Christian Reformed over women in leadership and “liberalism” at Calvin College. And today, the Reformed Churches here are on the verge of going in different directions over the place and welcome of LGBTQ persons.
Is there a link between schismatic impulses and today’s toxic masculinity? I’d say so, even if indirectly. Knowing best, needing to be in charge, a fixation on purity, an inability to compromise…and what else?
But, of course, it’s more than Pella. Simply consider that the ancestors of a good share of the readers of this journal (that’s many of you) were once described as “seceders” — leavers, separatists. Your ancestors, your myth-makers, left the state church, the predominant cultural norms, and their European home.
Abraham Kuyper, one of their heroes, lovingly described these folk as de kleine luyden — the little guys. Yes, it’s a term of endearment. But it also rings a strong populist note. Little people are the good but overlooked ones, those who do the work but don’t receive credit, the silent majority. De kleine luyden is a label that can hold a lot of resentment and envy, feelings of neglect and being misunderstood, reverse-snobbery and small-man-syndrome. More than a century later, could we say that some of those same feelings linger in de kleine luyden’s descendants?
Let me be perfectly clear, my intention is not to say that the people of Pella or all the descendants of the 19th century Dutch immigration are “bad people.” I am one of them. I like my neighbors. Secular and religiously-scarred people around here often assume that the Dutch Reformed are hypocrites, mean and terrible people, only to be surprised to discover that they’re not. Or at least not any more than any other slice of the population.
Still, if we want to wonder from whence evangelical support for Trump-like politics has sprung, perhaps we need not look to 1970s cable TV preachers with big hair, or crazy, convoluted charts about the end of the world featuring Saddam Hussein. The seeds are also within our culture and history.
And perhaps DuMez is too easy on those closest to her when she is seeking the stories and influencers that produced this piece of American politics today.