We are repenting from our assumption that government can be an adequate expression of our faith. That’s one of the marks of these times for Christians on both sides of the Great Divide.
When Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkley sociologist, went to Louisiana to try to understand the deep story of people on the American Right, she found that churches were a significant part of the story. In the last part of my interview with Hochschild, we talked about her project which led to her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Today we talk churches, dysfunctional government, and, O yes, a fishing trip across the Great Divide:
You evidently spent some time in a lot of churches down in Louisiana while you were there. What was your impression of the role religion plays in this whole narrative?
Oh, it’s enormous. I think this may be one source of the partition, between red and blue, but certainly not entirely. The churches were hugely important as a source of community, and solace, and practical help for particular problems. We were at a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church. I didn’t make it to the Methodist church. They’re known to be more progressive. And the Catholic church less so. But these large churches—I came to understand why they feel important. People tithe to them very willingly and happily, so taxes to the government–which help the line-cutters and not them–are more resented, because they feel they’re already being taxed in a way, but for something they believe in.
A lot of social services are associated with these churches. They’re filling in where the government is lifting out in a way. So, there’d be a gym. “Oh, my mother-in-law lost 50 pounds at the Baptist gym.” Or, “Oh, when our marriage was in trouble, we went to the counselors at the church.” Or, “There’s a teen area. My 12-year-old likes to go with her friends there and to summer camp.” It really had a surround sound kind of feel to it, like you weren’t just there an hour and a half on Sunday. It was more a way of life. There were several services during the day. I kind of felt that it had absorbed the space that a dysfunctional government had left.
Yeah. When you say ‘dysfunctional government’, which of the levels of government did you feel was the most dysfunctional, or impacted the people the most?
The state. There was big petrochemical development, and they proudly called themselves the buckle in America’s energy belt. But oil was the dominant economic force. The oil companies had really–I came to conclude–bought the state of Louisiana. The environmental agencies that were designated the job of protecting people from pollution weren’t doing that.
There was the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. It didn’t even have the name ‘protection’ in it. There were permit hearings [to determine] ‘Could Sasol lift out so many metric tons of water from Lake Charles, and disperse–they call it ‘produced water,’ well, it’s got toxic chemicals in it–back in. Well, yes, the permit would go right through. People would object, but it went through anyway. That was the state department of environmental quality that was doing this.
So, people came to think, “Oh, goodness. I’m paying taxes for the nice house for this officer for Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and he’s not protecting me.”
If you step back three steps, you could say that the state was doing the moral dirty work of the oil company. It works like this: Oil companies were given, by Governor Bobby Jindal and the state government, $1.6 billion in incentives money to lure them to Louisiana, (as if they would go somewhere else). With that money, they had a lot of money to give out, which they did in donations to the Audubon Society and so on.
Meanwhile, the state government also made sure that its office of environmental protection, on the one hand, promised to protect people from pollution, and didn’t, so that the Louisiana Industrial Alliance could proudly boast that regulations were as swift and easily guided–easily bypassed, in essence–more so than in any other state. I put it differently in the book, but that’s what it amounted to.
So, people felt the state isn’t doing its job, and that a federal government is just a bigger, badder version than this captured Louisiana state government. That suggests that we really ought to find out: Are these Red states actually more corrupt, more bought by industry, than Blue states? Are people actually responding very reasonably to the disappointments of living with a captured state?
Does that mean that they’re also being redirected—turning that anger towards the federal government and letting the state get off free?
Yes, right. When I say ‘captured’, I mean captured by industry. The state becomes captured by the industries that settle in it. That’s because they actually pay the election fee; they pay candidates political donations. They are a source of revenue for the mass media, so that radio bites its tongue on reporting on environmental disasters. You just don’t hear about them. Or ads to newspapers. The American Press in Lake Charles never mentioned problems with the environment.
So, various branches of civic society have been bought, in fact. I think that is a realistic worry. I didn’t go in knowing that, but I came out thinking, “Well, I get it, why they’re so cynical about government.” If they think all government works like this government, wow. I’d think the same thing.
This Mike Schaff that you uncovered was a really interesting character. He seems like a really rare flower, combining being an environmental activist and a Tea Party member. Are there more like him out there?
You know, there are more like him out there. Right where he is, no, he remains a rare flower. But in northern Louisiana, since the book came out, there’s a group of Tea Party people that say, “No. Our water…the salt content is going up, because of…I think, fracking.” And they want to stop that. So, yes.
Actually, Yale University has an environmental polling data source. There’s a center for research on attitudes towards the environment that has the latest and best data on that. Renewable energy is a crossover issue. The Right believes in it not quite as much as the Left, but it’s crossover, and we could really agree on that. Donald Trump isn’t playing to that, but if you look at how right-wingers really feel, they’re very interested in it.
In fact, I took my son, who is a big environmentalist. He’s a member of the energy commission here in the state of California—a big environmentalist and very interested in solar energy. I took him down with me last time, after the book was published, to spend a few days with Mike Schaff. I said, “Let’s just go out fishing. I want you guys to see if you can come to some common ground on renewable energy. I’m just going to hold the tape recorder.” And they did.
In the end, Mike Schaff said, “Oil’s end is coming–we’re running out of it anyway. I think solar energy–I’d love to have it on my roof, on my boat, everywhere.” David, my son, pops up, “Well, and it would also mitigate the effects of global warming.” Mike said, “No, no, no. I don’t believe in global warming. People around here don’t, but if you want to sell solar energy here in our oil country for right-wingers like myself, what you should say is that when you have a solar panel, you’re an independent producer and you are feeding clean energy into the grid and getting paid for it. You’re independent.” So, Mike Shaff was telling my son what to say to sell this idea to people like himself.
Part 3 – Talking with Anarchists.