Friday, August 05, 2005

Reflections on Montana

The Fausto family is back home from a family reunion plus some extra days in Montana.

As I told PeaceBang before I left, my grandfather was the oldest of ten kids on a farm in southern Indiana. He originally wanted to be a Methodist minister, but then he went to college and ended up on the Columbia U. Teachers College faculty with John Dewey and Sophia Fahs, where he helped found the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and dabbled in Ethical Culture and Baha'i. My mother, who attended Riverside Church's Sunday School, remembers Dewey coming over for dinner reasonably often. (You might not guess it from my blog, but if you ask me something about humanism, chances are I grew up already knowing it, although many of such ideas usually attributed to others in broader society were credited to my grandfather in my family.) Harry Fosdick would come over too, once in a while.

In contrast, three of my granddad's brothers and sisters went to Montana instead of college to get some of the free farmland Uncle Sam was still giving away, and they kept the old-time religion free of all that pointy-headed, citified corruption. Glory! They were also just as prolific as my granddad's parents had been, and so were their kids, and now there are a couple hundred of them out there, which must be about half the population of the state. They rented out a Bible camp on Flathead Lake for the reunion. (Yes, Flathead. No unkind wisecracks, please.) We had our choice of Cabin 7, adorned with "The Lord is my Rock and Shield", or Cabin 6, adorned with "Christ is King!" and "Pray without Ceasing!" Feeling a bit travel-weary rather than effusive, we chose the rock and shield.

Haven't had time to piece together everything I saw into some kind of unified whole, but here are some random observations:

Bozeman has no significant economic base, but it's booming. Real estate prices are going through the roof. It could be the next Jackson Hole.

While we were staying in Bozeman, we felt an earthquake.

The state, or at least its mountainous western half, is drop-dead gorgeous.

The place is huge, and empty. Montana is the fourth largest state by land area, but has a population of less than a million people.

They are obsessed with the fact that Lewis and Clark passed through 200 years ago on their way to somewhere else and back.

I got the opportunity to catch fish in two of North America's trout meccas, the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers.

The culture is plain, honest, and unbelievably (to a city slicker) self-reliant. They really are still homesteaders at heart. Among the old-timers and their descendants (as opposed to the newcomers), material acquisitiveness is not important. As a result, the dichotomy between the impecunious natives (both white and aboriginal) and the well-heeled arrivistes who expect a high level of both public and private services is striking.

It turns out that I have a second cousin, once removed, who was crowned Miss Rodeo Montana in 1987. The beauty genes didn't come down through my side of the family, though.

Miss Rodeo Montana 2005 stayed in our hotel one night. I bumped into her on the elevator. I never knew they made jeans so tight or shirts and hats with so many rhinestones. She drives a really nice luxury pickup truck, with no cargo stashed in the truckbed to mar the paint job.

Faustoette and Fausto Jr. watched the children's events at the Last Chance Stampede in Helena, and concluded that rodeos are cruel to both animals and children. I thought they'd have fun, but they were horrified.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park has got to be one of the most spectacular drives in the world.

At the present rate of retreat, all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be melted within 25 years. Sooner, if global warming accelerates.

You can see wild mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bears up close in Glacier Park. In the case of the goats, you can even see them wandering around in the parking lot.

A lot of Montanans, including a lot of my relatives, take it for granted that the Bible is the literal utterance of God, and arrange their lives accordingly. They don't spend much time thinking about either theology or politics, but they believe in the Bible and vote Republican because Pastor tells them they should, and Pastor is a good, humble man whom the Lord uses powerfully. Now, I've been known to argue that we UUs could benefit greatly from more familiarity with and more frequent invocation of the Bible, but their uncritical credulity and innocent absolutism amazed me -- especially since all my own formative family experience was so heavily influenced by the famously humanist and agnostic John Dewey, whose career was spent knocking down educational methods that relied on rote acceptance of supposed truths and encouraging kids to think for themselves instead.

It turns out I have a second or third cousin who lives in a little town in Idaho with only a handful of people in it, and he attends a non-denominational church founded six years ago with 4,000 members and a young, charismatic pastor. Now, I don't understand this exurban non-denom megachurch phenonenon at all. What my cousin described had aspects of a cult of personality that gave me the creeps, and the word "non-denominational" seemed like a hint that this pastor didn't care for the discipline of an organizational structure that might place limits on how he led or what he taught his flock. I told my cousin that my church was founded 325 years ago and had 150 members, and he seemed embarrassed for my poor luck.

One realization that the trip taught me is that, notwithstanding the fact that I received a big slug of childhood religious training from orthodox Episcopalians, and notwithstanding my defenses of UU Christian authenticity on other blogs earlier today, I have absolutely no appreciation for what modern American evangelical conservatives believe, or why they do. However, I wonder whether that's because, despite their apparent devoutness, the religion they practice may be in fact less authentically Christian than our supposedly heretical UU tradition; they're just a lot more determined than we UUs are to retain possession of the label.


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