Driving east on Route 412 from Oklahoma into Arkansas I began to see stark billboards on the side of the hilly four-lane highway that wove its way towards the Ozark Mountains.
The first one popped up at the edge of an expansive farm, seemingly out of nowhere: “Abortion is Murder”.
And then, just a few minutes later, a sign at the front of a church lot: “Pray For Our Country”.
These messages would not surprise anyone who has spent time in rural America. For me, they were an invitation to meet some folks who embody the ideas behind such bold slogans.
One of the first towns across the state line was Siloam Springs, with the usual fast food chains lined up along the main drag – just 45 minutes from Walmart’s headquarters.
I passed a congregation that appeared full of people who had parked their 4WD vehicles and pickup trucks out front. Then I decided that Siloam Eastgate Free Will Baptist Church was the place to speak to locals about US national politics and the economy – the key issue I’m covering in Arkansas.
‘Praying for our president’
I walked in the front door and heard a Bible Study session in progress, led by a preacher citing Pentecostal concepts. As I sat down in the waiting area, a booming Southern drawl echoed into the hallway: “Whoever you vote for, we’ll be praying for our president.”
Pastor Jerry Sadler, a former bank executive known by church members as Brother Jerry, was engaged with a dozen men in a conversation about clues in scripture pointing “to the downfall of this great nation”.
One indignant worshiper raised his voice, and demanded to know: “Am I trying to start a revolution?”
“The answer is ‘yes’,” he continued. “I’m not trying to get our guns to march on Washington, but we need to do two things: Get on our knees … and spread the gospel to our fellow men.”
Others responded with: “If we don’t do something now … We need to get over our fear”, as well as a warning that “America is gonna have God coming after her”.
As a segue into the economic issues that I wanted to hear about, one older gentleman said, “We need to pray for every company in the US to keep people working … since the government is working against us.”
Every second Tuesday of the month, the men meet to study, then pray together in the sanctuary. They kindly asked if I would join them, and I said I would merely observe.
Clad in plaid shirts and denim jeans, they crouched down facing in different directions by the pulpit, mumbling sacred thoughts in meditative unison as the lights dimmed.
The scattered voices created a feeling of serenity at the end of a work day, and I arranged to sit down with the men afterward in the entryway to hear their thoughts about jobs and the upcoming election.
‘God is in control’
Steve, an earnest white-collar professional at UPS, told me the northwestern Arkansas regional economy is strong, “but of course it depends who you talk to”. He also said their group was “predominantly Republican but not unanimously so”.
In a chaotic group discussion, I was repeatedly bombarded with a chorus of: “The only answer is Jesus Christ.”
A Siloam Springs municipal employee said, “Romney’s a businessman. Let him try instead of a politician”, adding that local government waste proved how private corporations could function more efficiently. Others ranted about high energy costs, high grain costs, companies slashing health benefits – and Obamacare.
Brother Jerry said the value of the dollar was affecting his retirement savings, before reaffirming, “We’re fundamental Christians, and God is in control of the economy.”
The members were especially irate about a new study just released by the Pew Forum showing the decline of church affiliation among white Protestants – over two-thirds of the country 40 years ago but now less than half.
“As a result, the economy is failing, and we’re living in chaotic times,” Brother Jerry said.
Kevin, a telecom installer, then explained, “When we push God aside, he curses the economy. The whole world is suffering because we’ve been disobedient to the heavenly father.”
He said his duty was to ensure the faithfulness of his children, and his children’s spouses.
“When we all get right with Jesus Christ, then the economy is gonna be fixed, the country is gonna be fixed, and the world is gonna be fixed.”
“I’m going to vote for Mitt Romney,” Kevin said. “But the answer is not Democrat or Republican – it’s Jesus Christ.”
At the end of our talk, Steve distanced their politics from the Quran-burning of Florida preacher Terry Jones, and the military funeral protesting of anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas.
But I was struck by how rage against their perceived oppressors was sublimated into love of God. These men believe they are voiceless underdogs demonised in America.
Scotty, a wheelchair-bound man suspicious that I wanted to denigrate believers, told me on my way out it was part of God’s plan for an Al Jazeera reporter to be “saved” that day.
After countless attempts to force their faith upon me, and several insinuations that I was a Muslim, I accepted their gift of a King James Version. As a geography geek, I told them the Biblical maps on the back two pages might come in handy.
Then I turned on my Kia to hear Christian rock tunes on American Family Radio 90.1 FM. Before I could pull out of the driveway, Steve ran over to my car window, and said, “I forgot to tell you. Siloam, the name of the town, comes from the [Old Testament] place of healing.”
And with that, I slowly drove off, pondering how fast a combination of God and the Republicans could heal the economy.