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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.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

18 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Juist. The big bad liberal government threatening the pure faith of the little guys. So the professed and evident Christian faith of Obama and Biden, and the latter’s regular practice of worship, can be cancelled in this paradigm story, because the Dutch oppressors all went to church too. By the way, as a side note, it appears that the despicable Senator Josh Hawley claims Kuyper as theological cover. He’s down as quoting the “square inch” thing. See the piece by Katherine Stewart in the NY Times, The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/opinion/josh-hawley-religion-democracy.html

    • David E Timmer says:

      Yes. Stewart gets her Kuyper wrong (“Mr. Kuyper is perhaps best known for his claim that Christianity has sole legitimate authority over all aspects of human life”), but that description may hold for some of his American evangelical acolytes. Does it explain why they so blithely dismiss victories by their political opponents as illegitimate?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      A fun little twist here is that the quaint post office and the mural were both paid for by bad “big government.”

  • I just started reading this book. It gives me great insight into the theological/political discussions that I heard in my early childhood.

  • Tom says:

    I generally agree with this piece, but perhaps we should all bear in mind the possibility that the ‘“seceders” — leavers, separatists’ were right, or at least not completely wrong – as noted above, many of us are ‘one of them’. That might lead to a bit more grace in here and elsewhere in dealing the ‘de kleine luyden’

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      I concur, Tom. There are times to secede. I know that I’m more of seceder than I care to see — from Barth’s “Nein!” to Hauerwas’ supposed “sectarianism.” I wouldn’t want to suggest that many of the labels and myths I pointed toward above only influence “bad” people or those who are wrong. I suspect that those labels and myths still shape many/most who have roots in the 19th century immigration. It might be more a question of how they influence us and how conscious we are of the stories that shape us.

  • Tom says:

    Well said, and my thanks.

    What I call “a Jeremiah Moment,” requires of us honest appraisal.

    Having grown up in the RCA, having lived my youth and young adulthood in Western Michigan (a Calvin and Western Theo. Sem. grad), I watched the Dutch slide, eagerly so, into evangelicalism, because in so many ways evangelicalism aligned with their feelings of being a “truthful minority,” standing bravely, John Wayne style, against the onslaught of savages (read: other Christians), and it had bouncy music. My wife grew up in the CRC – we have family and friends scattered throughout the Dutch communities here in the States. It is with great sadness that we witnessed the Reformed community shifting away from a “Sovereign God” to the evangelical “sovereign believer.” Will be posting this article in several places.

  • Steven Tuit says:

    Thank you, Steve, for helping bring DuMez’s book home and for offering an honest but not unsympathetic view of “onze volk” and our own mythologizing.

  • Jim says:

    Actually, Steve, the Seceders and Kuyper’s followers were mostly “little people,” and the former did have the experience of police harassment in their past, even if they emigrated for economic reasons. The question is, what do their descendants do with this memory once they become comfortable and affluent? Do they use it to sympathize with new immigrants coming from the same background of privation and state harassment? Or do they pull up the ladder and say: we got ours, the bleep with you! Alas, the predominant answer is too clear, but I’d say the problem is not the memory but what’s done with it, and what’s been done is a shameful betrayal of the better part of their heritage.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Jim, I always defer to you on history and Kuyper. That his followers were little guys may be so, but using/choosing that label tells me that they were grooming an identity for themselves in a manner that is almost self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Ann Clark Carda says:

    There’s a story (parable?) that Peter Rollins tells in his book “The Idolatry of God” that resonates here…

    There was once a man who had been shipwrecked on an uninhabited deserted island. There he lived alone for ten years before finally being rescued by a passing aircraft. Before leaving the island, one of the rescuers asked if they could see where the man had lived during his time on the island, and so he brought the small group to a clearing where there were three buildings. Pointing to the first he said, “This was my home; I build it when I first moved here all those years ago.” “What about the building beside it?” asked the rescuers. “Ho, that is where I would worship every week,” he replied. “And that building beside that?” “Don’t bring that up,” replied the man in an agitated tone. “That is where I used to worship.”

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    I remember the Pella post office from the years we lived there! I do not, I have to say, remember the mural. My most vivid memory is the day I was standing in line to mail letters or something and heard a loud cacophony of peeps. What the??? It was a huge shipment of live chicks. They get sent through the MAIL. This was a revelation…

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      I’ve been told of chicks in the mail. I heard that during the mail slowdown in the run-up to the election many shipments of little fowl died.

    • Christa Mooi says:

      Deb, I experienced the SAME thing – chicks in the mail – in the Sioux Center, IA, post office this last year!

  • Frans van Liere says:

    Great piece. Small detail : the last name is Scholten, with a “n”, and the title for pastor in Dutch is “dominee”, not “dominie”.

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