Missouri’s Evangelical Hubs: A Place Apart?

by Ray Suarez February 26, 2024


Photo by Ray Suarez in southwestern Missouri.

Zooming down the interstate toward Branson, Missouri, I was nervously watching for my exit, and watching the clock as I rushed to make an 8 p.m. curtain. No matter how big a hurry a visitor is in, you cannot miss one particular local landmark. It’s North America’s largest cross, as tall as a 20-story building, gleaming white and floodlit against the winter sky. Called simply, “the Branson Cross,” and made of one-inch-thick plate steel, it is so tall it is required to have red beacon lights mounted at the top. The Federal Aviation Administration insists on it.

Gigantic against the black night sky, the Branson Cross dwarfed the giant American flag just to its left, also floodlit as it flapped in the winter breeze. In freeze frame, this juxtaposition might drive a snap judgment about a place. Brook Blevins, a historian at Missouri State University and author of a three-volume history of the region said, not so fast. We talked around an old cast-iron stove in a general store in Douglas County, reached by a long trip from Springfield on successively smaller roads. “Folks may not be as intolerant as you would expect. Here in this county, there are at least one, maybe a couple of lesbian communes. There is a gay nudist campground. There’s an abbey of Trappist monks about seven or eight miles as the crow flies through the woods here.”

Again and again, people in the cluster of counties pushed up against the Missouri-Arkansas line remind the visitor, while they may think they live in a place apart, they are part of the American whole. Douglas and Ozark counties are Evangelical Hubs, as defined by the American Communities Project county models. They are more native-born, and more Christian than the country as a whole. (Taney County is part of Working Class Country, found in the same region, while Christian County is classified as an Exurb.)

Evangelical Hub counties are clustered from Oklahoma and Texas, through the Mid-South and Deep South in an arc that follows the Appalachians up into West Virginia.

Evangelical Hubs

Evangelical Hubs are among the whitest places in America (90% white in a country that as of the 2020 Census was just 57.8% white alone, or non-Hispanic white), and have significantly lower household incomes and four-year college degrees at about half the national average. Evangelical Hubs turned out strong for Donald Trump, at 77%, in 2016, and at an even higher rate, 79%, in 2020.

I kept Christian radio and traditional music on in the car during a lot of time behind the wheel. There aren’t a lot of pedestrians around here. Arterial streets are wide, and sidewalks vestigial. The talk shows were mournful, angry, or defiant, portraying the United States as a country in decay, hostile to Christianity, scornful and condescending toward people of faith. Yet the program hosts were not resigned to cultural, political, and social defeat. Instead, they used their syndicated broadcasts to rally the righteous and launch a counteroffensive in an unwelcoming country.

The stark contrast between what I was hearing and what I was seeing made perfect sense to Tim Stagner, a veteran pastor in the region, whose congregations were part of the Association of Vineyard Churches, a small evangelical denomination. He reminded me of the strong confidence among so many believers in America that we live in a fallen world, in a last era before the faithful are taken out of the world in the Rapture, and the destruction of the world as we know it. “There’s a pessimism that’s inherent within that theological view that I think can easily be tapped into when times are changing. I think that’s part of what things are happening with evangelicalism. It’s also a kind of disconnection from concerns that others might have about the world that evangelicals just don’t necessarily share, because — and this is a very crude and inaccurate way of thinking about it and saying it — because things are going to burn away. And because things are going to burn, I think you have this suspicion that for many evangelicals is built into the way that they think about the world already.”

While gloom and resistance rolled out of the radio, the landscape that rolled past my windshield did not match the alleged war between light and darkness. Giant billboards urged me to read Scripture and pointed the way to gun shows. Colored lights brightened the longest nights of the year, and vast church campuses spoke to successful and well-financed ministries from a variety of denominations. This area is home to the world headquarters of the Assemblies of God, 3 million strong and America’s second largest Pentecostal denomination. If there was a war on Christmas in this corner of Evangelical Hub America, Christmas was winning.

“I think there’s always been the idea that you felt different from the rest of the country. I mean, that’s a human nature thing. Wherever you’re at, you feel different than other people because you see yourself in a certain way and your community in a certain way that’s in contrast to the other people you hear about,” said Kaitlyn McConnell, an Ozarks native and the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural and historic preservation project. “I was calling a lady four or five counties over, and she heard my last name, and she asked, ‘Now which of the McConnell’s are you from?’ Those are the default questions, you know, those questions and religion too.

“For many people who are especially evangelical, that’s their primary identifier. Going to heaven, becoming saved is the most important thing you will do in your life. And the mission, going out into other parts of the world is there. But this area is a mission field for people too. It’s all about trying to help spread that message. Whether that’s through putting ‘In God We Trust’ on law enforcement cars or ambulances or inviting people to church to having community events where they get to spread the message. That’s very important to people.”

Overview of Evangelical Hub Views

Last year, the American Communities Project completed a nationwide survey of social attitudes and sentiments. Residents of Evangelical Hubs mirrored an American paradox reflected across community types: They reported their own lives were pretty good, while they thought the wider country was in serious trouble. There were, however, significant differences measured in these more religious, white, lower-income, and native-born counties.

Canaan Vermillion is what’s often called a “PK,” a preacher’s kid. His father pastored a succession of Southern Baptist congregations, which kept the family on the move through his youth, and nurtured both a passion for church work and a healthy suspicion of institutions. Now, nearly 40, he teaches junior high and raises two boys on land that has been handed down through the family. “I’ve been blessed, my wife has had a good job and even though we’re paying more money with bills and all that we’re still, we’re doing OK. We’re doing OK, but I can definitely see where, like my mother, who’s on social security…it’s a different issue when you have a fixed income, and the bills go up, the electric and things like that.” The family is waiting on a home project because of high interest rates but was able to manage a big vehicle repair out of current savings. While Vermillion reports things are good at home, he worries about the wider country, and uses words like “chaotic” and “wild” to describe the state of the nation. He said he worries about freedom of speech, and conscience, both in universities where he’s completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and online.

About one of every four respondents nationwide said immigration was a major issue facing the country, while in Evangelical Hubs one out of three respondents did. Though the 375 counties don’t include many places that have attracted large immigrant populations, the flow of people into the country was the second most important issue facing the country for people in this county type.

A large majority in Evangelical Hubs signaled a kind of cultural solidarity when they agreed “Americans have a lot more in common than generally believed,” at the same rate as other Americans.

Yet 60% also agreed with the statement “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country,” a much higher rate than other Americans did, at 46%.

Vermillion had a lot of questions about the tumult at the border, and found there are, for him, few good answers. “Why are they coming in? Why are they here? Why are they just letting them in without being vetted? It’s not that it’s hateful or racist, or like we don’t want people coming in. The question is why aren’t we taking care of our own?” He noted the elderly and veterans with unmet needs. He looked at his own experience as a teacher in a school trying to meet the education needs of the children already in Missouri and tried to imagine also taking on a large new group of students who do not speak English.

Springfield is the largest city of any size in the region. It is the urban anchor for the half-million strong Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area, with a population of around 169,000 people. Of that number, 98.2% are citizens, and just over 3% were born outside the United States, less than a quarter of the national rate of foreign birth, about 14%. Watch the line to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall, wait for your ticket to be scanned at a Branson theater, or watch a praying, swaying congregation of thousands in a massive church and the realization sneaks up on you: Just about everybody you see, most of the time, is white.

The numbers sparked recognition in Joanna Mendez, a Mexican-born woman who came to southern Missouri as a child as the daughter of a Baptist pastor. Her background, as a religious insider and an ethnic outsider, gives her an unusual vantage point for watching the soul-searching over immigration in these Evangelical Hubs. “They feel safe, but they feel like a stranger. They feel that immigration is bad, but they feel that we have a lot of things in common. It’s all over the place.” In exchanges in a quick conversation at a supermarket or school pick-up line, people may not notice the Spanish lilt in her fluent English, Mendez said, but during a longer conversation “that’s when I get more questions. I’ve had one person flat out ask me, ‘Does everyone in your family have a passport?’ and I know what I’m getting into. I immediately know she has a lack of knowledge about immigration. And yet she felt very entitled, and not embarrassed, to ask me a personal question.

“Is my answer (Mendez and her family were all legal immigrants, and are now naturalized) going to change the way she perceives me and my family if I tell her ‘Yes, we do?’ What is that answer going to contribute to a relationship? At that moment, we’re not going to contribute anything more than a power position, right?

“You have power. You’re obviously from the United States. You were born here. I was not, so you have the authority to ask these questions. In my Christian circles, it’s interesting because I feel like I have to explain why I’m in this country. As soon as a I tell another evangelical that my parent is a pastor, then I’m OK. Even though I am educated and a mature woman, something inside of me feels like I have to do this, so that if there’s any doubts, ‘Can we just get it over with so that you know I fit in?’”

Pastor Bergen has seen the challenges of immigration from much closer vantage point than many of his southwest Missouri neighbors. He serves on a local school board in one regional county with many Spanish-speakers, attracted to McDonald County by work processing chicken. “We have centers that are majority minority. There are very few white students in some of our schools here in this rural area, which is kind of unusual. We have a Hispanic congregation in our church here. One of those poultry plants closed recently so a lot of those people are moving on to somewhere else. We’re losing a lot of them.”

For this longtime educator, now preacher, “fitting in” for the area’s immigrants was sped along by one key attribute. “They came to work. That’s why they’re here. They’re hardworking family people. And a lot of them are church people. Now if the things were going on here that I see on television with the raping and murdering and pillaging and plundering, the entitlement people staying in expensive hotels and expecting the local people to pay for it, that wouldn’t go here. It just wouldn’t go,” Bergen said.

Like many old American downtowns, Springfield’s is struggling to hang on, find a new purpose, keep apartments rented and storefronts busy. As I walked through the civic square at the heart of downtown, I passed what was the main department store in town, and a branch of the public library.  I was surprised to see a rally and die-in supporting an end to Israeli military attacks in Gaza at the foot of the city’s Christmas tree. Along with racking up big numbers for Donald Trump, the region is also home to many colleges and universities. Young adults who don’t see themselves as fitting in with the area’s dominant cultural currents chanted, “Brick by brick, wall by wall, Israeli apartheid has got to fall.”

After the demonstrators braved the chill of freezing pavements to symbolically die around a nativity scene sitting on rubble, these local youths explained what being out of step is like, curious about faraway Chicago and New York, and still rooted in their home region. Isaac Williams is from Nixa, Missouri. “I want to go see something more at some point but do also believe there’s a lot of duty here. But it is inevitable that I’ll go somewhere different at some point because it’s a matter of finding people like-minded to you.”

Joanna Jordan would not look out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Chicago’s Wicker Park, or college campuses across America. In her home, she feels out of place. “I get an enormous amount of verbal harassment for looking how I look, cyberbullying for supporting what I support, and it’s just because these people feel threatened. They feel threatened by change. That’s the hardest part of being around here and wanting change.” She, too, plans to head to a big urban area elsewhere in America.

The demonstration was organized and led by a transwoman named Tonya Claiborne. She was anxious to give me a strong statement on the need to pressure Washington back off its support of Israel. As I watched the speeches and protests proceed, I kept returning to one thought: This must be a tough place to be trans. Claiborne said it is. “But I feel I have been fairly fortunate. I don’t get a lot of direct guff unless I engage with religious conservatives. Then, I’ve been the target of horrific accusations and horrific name-calling, particularly around the issue of trans kids and their supportive parents being able to support their kids and get gender-affirming care.”

Tracking Cultural and Economic Shifts

When asked if they agree with the statement “It is increasingly hard for someone like me to get ahead in America,” residents of Evangelical Hubs agreed at a rate 10 points higher than other Americans, 54%.

Also telling, the Evangelical Hub response to the statement “Experts in this country don’t understand the lives of people like me,” 11 points higher than the rest of the country at a whopping 70%.

In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton won Missouri’s 11 electoral votes. No Democratic candidate has won them since. In the case of southwest Missouri, the cultural has mingled with the economic to put the region far beyond the reach of Democratic candidates. Prof. Blevins is watching the region closely post-pandemic. Remote workers lured by the low cost of a house on a little land have been moving in, often after cashing in their chips in more expensive housing markets. The small industrial sector that grew after World War II has eroded. “They were only there for a minute anyway. There was a hardwood flooring mill, what we called the ‘shirt factory,’ a garment factory. There was aircraft. McDonnell Douglas, later Boeing, had a small factory here. They were the best jobs in these counties, and for the most part, there from about the ’60s to the turn of the century, and they disappeared,” Blevins said.

A lot of families in the wider area, which becomes very rural, very fast as you head out on the county roads, still farm. The mountainous topography, the smaller spreads, the small scale, means few families can provide for all their needs through farming. One or more of the adults must have a job in town as well. The small cattle ranches could never reach the economies of scale of giant feedlot operations in nearby regions. “So, most of the cattle you see up and down the sides of the road, those are just part-time farmers, or they’re a teacher or social worker and just doing it on the side. A lot of it probably as much for heritage reasons as well as anything else,” Blevins said.

Fusing the Sacred and the Secular

Saturday night and Sunday morning in this southwestern Missouri area offered the visitor in succession a pop show with religious overtones, and a religious service fused with pop. Branson and Ozark nodded to each other from 30 miles apart on Interstate 65, part of an intriguing whole.

Holiday time tickets at the giant Sight & Sound Theatre in Branson were sold out, so I headed to my second choice at the King’s Castle Theatre, “Christmas Wonderland.” As a big crowd settled into its seats, the show began with a tribute to the military. A montage of earnest service people, speaking straight to camera, appeared on projection screens above the stage. As the video cut from soldier to sailor to marine, these testimonies spoke to why people served in familiar ways, for “freedom,” for “my country,” then “for righteousness’ sake.” It’s a distinctly religious turn of phrase that Americans in many other places in the country might not use to describe controversial American military actions in Iraq, Grenada, or Vietnam. In Branson, it went down smooth as a milkshake before ending with an ovation for all the veterans in that evening’s Christmas show crowd.

The energetic ensemble danced and sang its way through a vast repertory of Christmas music, pop and sacred, complete with an English-accented Santa Claus and real-life snow falling from the ceiling onto the delighted audience. For a few hours on a winter’s night in Branson, politics, discord, and culture war all seemed far away.

At the end of the show, the cast retook the stage in stars and stripes costumes for a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic anthem “God Bless the USA,” which turned the song into something more like a civil sacrament, as the audience, as one, stood and men removed their hats.

Pastor Bergen said the people of southwest Missouri still “claim to hold the same values of God, country, family, hard work, basic morality.” One area where he said there’s a “slow fade” is in church attendance, a trend seen across the country. He noted that on average you need 25% more people on the rolls of a congregation to maintain Sunday worship at about the same size. “That tells me they don’t see that there’s enough in it for them to make time to gather. It was understood in the early church that Christians get together. That’s just what they do because they love each other, love each other’s company; they like being together.” The growing trend of Americans deciding they are “spiritual, but not religious” has even made its way into this part of the Bible Belt. “Now you’ve got people saying, ‘I’ve got my own thing. God and me are tight. I don’t need to go to church.’ That’s hogwash.” The pastor showed a gentle flash of anger when thinking about the times he’s been challenged about not dealing with important issues in the pulpit. “I addressed it last week! You weren’t there! That is so frustrating.” Bergen said, “If the devil can separate a Christian from the herd, he’s got them right where he wants them. They’re easy prey.”

The fusing of the secular and the sacred, and especially American and Christian identities are so common as to be unremarkable in this part of the country. In recent years, a third of Americans have told public opinion researchers one should be Christian to really be American. White Americans, Republicans, conservatives, and church-attenders all told pollsters that was true at higher rates than Americans as a whole. A new kind of post-congregational Christianity has fused with a strand of American patriotism to create a Christian identity quite removed from theology, liturgies, and creeds.

James River Church in Ozark, Missouri. Photo by Ray Suarez.

When you roll into the parking lot at James River Church in Ozark, Missouri, a lot so vast there are golf carts circulating for worshippers who don’t want to make the hike to the front door, it is easy to forget the disenchantment and “apartness” of Evangelical America. Over outdoor speakers, Johnny Mathis is belting out a Christmas tune as I make my way through the parking lot and in through the doors, into broad, cozy corridors that would look at home on the way to a big hotel ballroom. Then comes the “wow” of the vast worship space, the congregation of thousands, and a praise band belting out Christian songs, with lyrics provided on the jumbo screens. Theatrical lights dramatize the music, camera nests capture the action for the director choosing shots for the projection screens, for the online audience, and big congregations elsewhere in the state watching James River. People surrounding me in the pitched, stadium-style seating, from toddlers to seniors, white and black, raise their arms in prayer and join in the singing.

When the singing gives way to prayer and preaching, healing and teaching, the story offered to the thousands present and the far-flung campuses is of growth, building, and forward movement. When many churches in America would be glad to attract a flock one thirtieth or fortieth this size, the message from the Lindell family of pastors, preachers, and teachers is “As you honor God, He will honor you.” There are updates on the construction of an enormous new youth facility, and a QR code on the big screens making it easy to give to the church and its ministries.

For millions of Americans, now completely secular, but raised in Mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations, the senior pastor at James River offers something new and unfamiliar. Liturgical clothing that marks an ordained person as a different kind of human being in other churches will never be found here at James River. No stole. No collar. No cassock. The pastor, on a vast stage in Ozark and in an accent “not from here,” talks to the congregation in jeans and boots, and a brown suede jacket over a stylish black T-shirt.

Just before Christmas, Pastor Lindell offers verse by verse teaching about the coming of Jesus, of the Christian savior’s elderly aunt and uncle, surprised by the revelation they would at long last have a child, John, who would foretell his cousin Jesus’ ministry in a corner of the Roman Empire. The sermon was delivered with exquisite timing and good cheer. I asked an enthusiastic worshipper, Joel Hole, an insurance agent raised a Methodist, if he felt “like a stranger in his own country.” He allowed that yes, sometimes he does feel that way, aware that this corner of Missouri is not as diverse as the rest of the country, while James River Church is welcoming “and safe for everyone.” The America he sees on his TV screen, Hole explained, was different from the one he lived in every day.

Stagner was familiar with those here/there, like us/not like us dichotomies. “Within evangelicalism and especially in places like Greene, Christian, and Taney County, there has been this sense that America is a Christian nation. And now it is becoming harder and harder to view the United States that way even though they want to hold onto that. Because of that, they just have these feelings of disconnection, a dissonance, a dissatisfaction, and just a general suspicion like the world as they thought that existed, is not the world that actually exists. And I think that’s actually a very difficult experience for anyone to go through.”

I was impressed by what I saw at James River. My curiosity and geniality could not get me past the truth that I am a reporter. Once the staff got wind of it, I was escorted off the premises, and watched until my car left the lot. Attempts to follow up went unanswered. At Battlefield Mall I spent an hour trying to chat with Christmas shoppers. With a lot of courtesy and clarity it was made clear no one wanted to talk to me. About anything. In 45 years as a reporter I have never fished so hard and had so little to show for it. It was not unfriendly as much as insular.

Wooden plaques with Christian symbols at Battlefield Mall in Springfield, Missouri. Photo by Ray Suarez.

Throughout my time in southwest Missouri, people talked to me about a way of life they worried might be threatened by forces beyond the power of local people to stop them. Canaan Vermillion sat in the cab of his truck and reflected on watching his sons, 6 and 10, grow under his and his wife’s care and guidance. He talked about his sons asking to be baptized, his older son killing his first deer on their land, “a rite of passage in our family.” Like any father he worries and wants to head off his boys before they have a chance to duplicate his own teenage mistakes. “I don’t have a fear for my family. For myself. But for America, though? Like Thomas Jefferson said, and it’s one of my favorite quotes, ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. That his justice cannot sleep forever.’ If our freedom comes from God, then judgment is coming.”

Ray Suarez is the author of the forthcoming book We Are Home: Becoming American in the 21st Century.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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