Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

I was perusing a book I’ve had for a while, Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel.

I don’t think I’ve written about it before, but it is an interesting book that fits in with much I have written about. The following passage comes from the last chapter on culture, and in reading about it I was reminded of some previous thoughts about Midwestern culture. It took me well into my adulthood before I could grasp this Midwestern sense of community-mindedness.

Unfortunately, the authors don’t go as deeply into the origins of this cultural difference. They don’t consider, for example, the larger history of ethnic immigrations (in this context, the Scots-Irish culture of Appalachia and the Northern European culture of the Midlands). Nonetheless, the data and analysis they offer is compelling.


“In the Evangelical Epicenters it’s not just that there are many adherents; it’s that they come mostly from one particular faith tradition. Nearly half of the people who live in these places are members of some kind of Evangelical Protestant church, all of which share the key belief that faith and salvation are highly personal experiences.

“That affects the local culture. Congregations here tend to be communities unto themselves, concerned foremost with the care of their own members. One pastor in our representative Epicenter of Nixa told us that his church doesn’t have as much to give the greater community because there is so much need within his own congregation. That attitude is clearly shared by others: Nixa is full of churches and congregations, but they don’t tend to organize into larger interfaith groups. That more personal understanding of God and religion may also have something to do with those places’ attitude toward governing, which tends to put individual rights first.

“Tractor Country, which looks a lot like the Evangelical Epicenters in terms of its vote, has a very different religious makeup. These small communities are a mix of different Christian sects. The percentage of evangelicals here is a fraction of what it is in the Epicenters, even though Tractor Country has roughly the same number of religious adherents. These communities are mostly mainline Protestant, with a significant population of Catholics, as well. In general, these mainline churches are more open to ecumenical dialogue. They also tend have greater top-down organization than the evangelical denominations that predominate the Epicenters. It’s easier to coordinate churches that have built-in power structures: It involves talking to fewer people.

“Working together is an important part of life in agricultural Tractor Country. In our representative community of Sioux Center, people take an active interest in their neighbors’ lives, helping out when they need to. In Sioux Center, a town of 6,500 people, many of whom are members of one or another offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church, money is raised with relative ease and bond issues are passed to build things for the larger community. Here the community comes before the congregation.”

6 thoughts on “Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

  1. I was reading American Nations, and while I do think the author does not understand class within those breakdowns nearly enough to explain things, but I was too hard on the book last time I was discussing it with you. I’d imagine patchwork nation is good.

    • I actually forgot our discussion of the book. I’ll have to go back to it. I might have a different perspective now.

      I think the authors do certain things very well. On the other hand, there are factors they either ignore or barely touch upon. Even their chapter on culture didn’t go very deep.

      The strength of their analysis is also the weakness. They stick close to the data they’ve gathered. Because of this, their commentary often lacks probing insight. They seem wary to speculate too far beyond the data. This is good in so far as it keeps them from mere biased opinionating, but the bad side is that it can feel dissatisfying.

      They could’ve improved their analysis by including other data and a larger historical viewpoint. For example, they discuss the relationship between low wages and low union membership in Minority Central. So, they acknowledge an important factor, but then they don’t explore it much further.

      The data they gathered is superb. I just felt they could have done so much more with it. Despite some interesting observations, the book was a missed opportunity in certain ways.

      • well, that is the problem is purely data-driven analysis. Data has to be contextualized. But data also has to be meaningful limit to any analysis, so it’s a fine line.

  2. This passage got me thinking about the dilemma of politics.

    Evangelicals (and those with a similar worldview) are so mistrusting of collective action that they are unwilling to cooperate even in their own immediate communities. This would explain why such evangelical communities have so many social and economic problems.

    This saddens me considering how much influence evangelicals have on national politics. It isn’t any surprise that Americans have apparently lost the ability to act positively on the collective level. Democracy is only functional to the degree collective action is possible. It is obvious that American democracy isn’t functional.

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