Red State Christians Book Update: Almost Halfway!
I wanted to take a break from regular blogging/article sharing to give an update on progress for my book, Red State Christians. I began this project in late December 2017, and my manuscript is due to my editor at Fortress Press by Jan. 1, 2019.
My journey toward writing this book has been at turns unexpected, incredibly joyful, and incredibly scary all at once - and I thought it might be appropriate to share a little bit of the "behind the scenes," as I know I always thought "someday I want to write a book," but I had no idea when or how to even begin the process. I always imagined it would be after a long career in ministry, and I never dared hope it would happen before my 40th birthday! But if I've learned anything at this point in my life, God is full of surprises; and God's timing rarely follows my own.
While working as Pastor of Community Life and Discipleship at Messiah Lutheran Church in North Orange County, Calif., I found myself often mentally taking notes, because I was so fascinated by the Christian culture in Orange County, and how vibrant it was. Many kids in the area attend Christian schools, and Orange County is dotted with megachurches and other large congregations, packed each week and full of innovative ministry and forward-thinking ideas. While at Messiah, I gave birth to my second son, and my life was changed forever. Through the powerful worship services there, and my work with our church staff and volunteers, I found a renewed sense of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In much of America, we're taught that Christendom is dead -- and yet in many places in Orange County, Christendom : and the role of the church in public life - is quite alive. I was struck by Orange County Christianity: such a unique blend of Southern California glamour and laid-back attitudes, technological prowess and well-educated churchgoers - as well as socially conservative practices and attitudes, especially within family and gender roles.
I saw these many contrasts and tensions within vibrant Orange County Christian culture exposed and brought into light during the 2016 Presidential Election. While California as a whole is solidly Democratic, the whole truth of California politics is more complex. Orange County is a much redder place, tending Republican for generations, particularly in North Orange County and outside Santa Ana and places in Orange County that are predominately non-white.
Inland California as a whole is also much more Republican, mirroring voting patterns found all across rural America. We often remarked, upon driving through inland California, that it felt much like driving through small town America anywhere else in the county, with a few more mountains and deserts.
With the Presidential Election of Donald Trump, I witnessed in Orange County a microcosm of the ways the 2016 election affected Christians in particular. More than 8 out of 10 white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and yet most Christian anti-Trumpers were shocked by the election results. Emboldened by Trump's victory, conservative Christians spoke out about their votes, surprising their more progressive Christian friends. Non-white Evangelicals, who did not largely vote for Trump, were also shocked to see racial issues come to the forefront after Trump's election, and women - even those who voted for Trump - also wondered about the after-effects of the election on women's rights and women's roles in American politics and the church.
In Orange County, I worked with a senior pastor who had been vocally opposed to Trump, and while I watched him attempt to build bridges after the election, I also saw the pain and anger of those in the congregation who felt that they were being scorned or shamed for their political choices. I saw other pastors in the area vocally support Trump on social media, and I saw the ways that their politics hurt people in their churches. Political issues became divisive in many congregations in the area, even in such an idyllic Christian hotbed.
I saw too the unique ways families were pained by the 2016 election. Loved ones found themselves on opposite sides, and people said hurtful things to their loved ones, or worried about talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
I was one who was pretty surprised on election night, and wondering what I'd missed in the past months leading up to the election. I was sad that the first female candidate for President had been defeated, even if I'd never been entirely thrilled with her campaign, and I understood many of my Christian friends' reasons for voting against her. I also saw the very real pain of my non-white and gay friends, as some of Trump's more incendiary rhetoric seemed - intentionally or not - to fire up racist and homophobic tensions.
I also sensed - in some way - that all the pain that was being brought forth in the aftermath of Nov. 8, 2016 -- was bringing forth long-buried tensions and pain across America, particularly within Christian circles. I sensed in some way that perhaps we would need to walk together through some deep chasms - to talk about some ugly things that we'd buried for a long time - before we could be brothers and sisters again.
This book begins a chance to do some of that work: among Christians and in America at-large.
Despite my deep, abiding love for my California congregation, my fellow pastor, the staff and all the people I knew in Orange County - I also sensed God calling me and my family to a different place. We simply did not have the means to live the kind of lifestyle we wanted to in Southern California: my husband had been facing an hour commute each way to work, and our families back in the Midwest weren't able to be present in our lives the way we'd always wanted them to be.
As a mom now of 2, I also felt a calling personally to be present in a different way in my two boys' lives. Working as a full-time pastor, despite wonderful flexibility and care from my congregation, meant a different lifestyle than I'd began to envision for myself as a mom. I started to explore the idea of leaving my call, searching for a role in part-time ministry, which would enable me to work a great deal from home, keep my kids at home except for minimal part-time preschool, and also rekindle my writing career, which had stagnated as I leaned into full-time ministry at a large church.
My husband, Ben, and I spent a lot of time praying, thinking, and talking to valued mentors in both of our fields. We decided we might explore moving back to either Minneapolis or Kansas City, where my parents and his parents live. Just a few days after making this decision, Ben got two unexpected job offers : both in Minneapolis. Our plans accelerated much more quickly than we'd envisioned, and we found ourselves traveling to purchase a home in Minneapolis and leaving Orange County in May 2016.
All the while, I had this book idea bubbling in the back of my brain: about the rich and unique Christian culture in Orange County, and the ways it was fractured and changed by the 2016 Presidential Election, mirroring some of the division among Christians in the nation at large - and yet still the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ triumphed over that division and politics, to teach me that some of my most valued spiritual moments would come even in the midst of a politically divided country, and that faith can and should supersede politics.
Want a laugh? I even had a working title for the book. Bibles and Boob Jobs. Not that Orange County is all about plastic surgery, but I wanted to communicate the unique blend of affluence and glitz of Orange County combined with deep religious and social conservatism.
When we moved back to Minnesota, I got in touch via social media with the then-head of Fortress Press and 1517 Media: just attempting to get my foot in the door in the Christian publishing world, and indicate my availability to do some freelance writing and editing work. A few months later, I would begin work on Sunday School curriculum for 1517's children and family division: Sparkhouse.
Everyone at 1517 was incredibly gracious to me, and I even took the risk of sharing a bit about my book idea - knowing that it was probably a gigantic pipe dream. Kindly, I was given a chance to fill out a book proposal for what was then called Theology for the People, Fortress Press' division of publishing geared outside a professional religious audience and toward even a secular audience, as well as ordinary American Christians: non-church staff and clergy.
Theology for the People has covered some incredible topics and has fantastic writers, many of whom I was acquainted with through my work with Red Letter Christians and other progressive/less conservative Evangelical circles.
It fit a nice niche for me: yes, I grew up Lutheran, but I'd always been drawn to contemporary worship and the Evangelical/Baptist world as well: often gravitating to youth and young adult groups at non-denominational and Baptist churches, especially during my time in college in Missouri and as a sportswriter in Florida. My pastoral internship had been at an Evangelical-style, Lutheran (almost) megachurch in Vegas, and my church in California was also stylistically Evangelical, especially at our two later services. As a former journalist, I wanted to write for everyone: not just for Christians or for pastors; though my work would be grounded in faith and in Jesus, I was also passionate about truly telling the stories of ordinary people.
In the midst of my work on a short-form proposal and conversation with Fortress, I earlier had the opportunity to be published in the Washington Post and in other publications, as well as appearing on some podcasts and even national Canadian TV. I was contacted by another Christian publisher and even had a proposal near-approval for a book about raising boys, when I was educated that it would be impossible to tackle two book projects at once, and I felt strongly about this idea and opportunity with Fortress, especially as it was local and had Lutheran roots, and an amazing editorial and marketing team.
(Just in case this time sounds amazing, I also had horrific call experiences and felt entirely unwanted as a Lutheran pastor, for various reasons. So life is complicated. And we were fairly broke, without my pastoral salary.)
A day before yet another horrific call/church experience, I finally had my meeting with my editor at Fortress Press, a person whose writing work and public ministry I'd admired for many years. It was he who told me I needed to look beyond Orange County. They loved my journalism background and writing profile, but Orange County was too narrow. They'd been looking to publish a book about Christians who voted for Trump: sort of a journalistic outtake that involved telling stories and traveling the country to talk to ordinary people. He even had a title in mind. Red State Christians.
I loved it. I felt almost breathless. It seemed impossible, and somewhat crazy in the face of rejection and uncertainty on the side of my pastoral ministry.
But this was what I'd been made for, in a sense. When I started college at the University of Missouri Journalism School, I'd initially planned to double major in Magazine Journalism and Political Science. I'd always been interested in public policy, interning for a Minnesota congressman in 2005, and planning to attend the Journalism School's Washington Program my final semester, until I met Ben my sophomore year and instead fell in love with him and with sportswriting, graduating a semester early and spending my time in the ice arena instead of covering Congress.
I had loved being a journalist and a reporter, particularly the time I spent interviewing ordinary people and learning to tell their stories. From a Puerto Rican boxer to an NFL star running back, I often saw the Gospel story in the real and often gritty lives of ordinary people from a variety of backgrounds. It was in these intimate moments, as people shared their unique truth, that I experienced God's love and God's grace, and when I responded to God's call to go to seminary in 2009, I knew that a part of me would always be a journalist, that my reporter's heart and desire to speak truth to power would always be a part of my ministry.
My Fortress editor requested I write a new short-form proposal for Red State Christians, and I leaned into it hard - devising chapters and locations and even potential trips. The train was rolling down the track, and eventually we negotiated, I signed a contract, and in January I was heading to Washington, D.C., for my first big trip - where I scored interviews with top Southern Baptist policymakers and pastors, as well as a Republican ad-maker and Methodist with his own upcoming book on Trump's coalition.
Sometimes when I look back at this story it seems, like so many of the stories I'd heard in the past from writers, somewhat ineffably simple, like everything just fell together so effortlessly and now, here, I was writing a book! The truth is of course more complicated, involving worries about money, worries about vocation, worries about the future - yelling at my two boys to get out of my office and let me write - missing moments with my family to travel - freaking out at the last minute that interviews were falling through, only to receive last-minute messages that enabled a contact - sitting in the back pew of church with Trump's pastor, Paula White, in Florida - visiting Houston Muslims at a mosque to talk about Middle Eastern Christians and Trump/conservative Christianity ... it has truly been a wild ride.
As I write this today, I am in the midst of a heavy period of manuscript writing - which is probably why I haven't been blogging with my usual fervor! I have nearly 43,000 words completed, almost exactly halfway to the 85,000 required by my contract. At the end of this month, I'll be done with seven chapters, and I'll have seven left: which includes the Introduction and a finale chapter centered on one person's story. I have met remarkable people. Some of them I vehemently disagree with, but the vast majority are folks with whom I can find vast common ground, and a shared desire to put Jesus and His Gospel of love, grace and mercy at the center of American life.
I am not yet ready to claim the central theme or thesis of my book; I have too many people and prayers and travels yet to encounter - and yet I am convinced that at its center I want this book to be surprising in the same way Jesus must be surprising to matter.
Jesus' resurrection: his rising to life after death on the Cross, was shocking; it turned the world upside down and forced the disciples and all who heard of it to reconsider their previously held positions and claims.
My hope is that this book too will be surprising. If you are convinced of the utter evil and malice at the heart of Evangelical Christian Trump supporters, I hope you will read it and be surprised to hear stories of generosity, love, nuance, and unpredictability - of people who fill out the narrow and unfair portrayals of them found in the national media and on your Facebook feed.
If you are convinced, on the other hand, that you fully understand Christian Trump supporters and are confident and comfortable with the makeup of the American Evangelical Christian community, then I hope you too are surprised by this book: that you will see places where Jesus might challenge long-held conservative tenets, and where even those who count themselves among conservative Evangelicals will ask where patriotism may have caused distortion and even cruelty in their understanding of the Gospel.
As I said, I have much, much more to learn. This weekend I head to rural Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt to speak with rural conservative Christians. Unlike many of the Christians I've spoken to in other places, these folks will not be Southern Baptists but likely Lutherans and other mainliners.
In a few weeks, I'll be visiting a church outside Dallas to learn about their celebration of the Fourth of July for weekend worship, and then I'll spend some time with young, Libertarian-leaning Christians in rural Missouri.
After that, I'll get the chance to head back to Orange County and also to visit with conservative Catholics in New Hampshire.
Someday, with God's help, I'll finish the manuscript. My editor will rip it to shreds (well, hopefully not literally) - we'll pound through edits and rework what needs to be reworked - and then sometime in 2019, it'll be for sale!
In the midst of the work and the angst and the fear, I don't want to forget the miracle. I get to write a book! I get to write a book about America, about ordinary people, about Jesus ... and I also get to be mom to my little boys ... and I also get to serve a part-time pastoral call at a church I love ... and I get a husband who is by my side each step of the way, and whose work provides us with health insurance ...
Life is good, and I don't want to forget to say thank you, God - and thank you to everyone who has supported me as a reporter, a writer, a pastor, a woman, a family member, and a friend!