My Iowa Dad’s advice to Stephen Bloom: Find the common ground

I’m just going to admit it. Stephen Bloom is on my bad side.

It’s true that I don’t know the guy. Even though my husband did some work for the University of Iowa’s journalism school a few years ago, I never met Bloom and Steve can’t recall whether he did. I’ve seen Bloom’s picture, but I doubt I could pick him out of a crowd.

So what’s the deal? Well, first he dissed Iowa, my home state, in the Atlantic. Then, when Iowans became upset about it, he just went on and on. Good people have rebutted what Bloom wrote, including my friend Ken Fuson and my spouse, Steve Buttry. But since Bloom just keeps adding fuel to the fire, I figure why not strike my own match?

I’m willing to give Bloom a small bit of due. He is probably right that the majority of the 30,007 Republicans who voted for Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucus have deeply held, strict, Christian convictions. But consider this: The population of Iowa is 3,046,355. Even if each and every one of the Santorum voters had conservative Christian ties, that’s not quite 1% of a population that Bloom insists, “views the world through the prism of religion.”

The fact is, while most Iowans declare themselves Christian, like the rest of the nation, church attendance is dropping. In a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Iowa ranked in the bottom half of states in three of four measures of religious attitudes and practices. In worship attendance, Iowa ranked 21st at 40 percent, just one point above the national average. But in three other measures, Iowa ranked below the national average: 28th in the percentage who say they believe in God with absolute certainty (70 percent), 32nd in the percentage who say religion is very important in their lives (51 percent), 34th in the percentage who say they pray daily (53 percent).

Why Bloom thinks, “All of the networking is done in church,” when fewer and fewer are attending services of any stripe is a mystery.

It wasn’t until I read the Washington Post story on Bloom that I realized the heart of his animosity lay in his Jewish religion versus what he perceives as Iowa’s “in your face” Christianity. He told writer Sally Quinn, “You constantly feel like an outsider. If you’re different you are viewed askance, as an alien.” And oddly, that is where we have some common ground. My family was also viewed as different.

My father, the son of a Southwest Iowa farmer, served in the Navy during World War II. Getting Wesley back down on the farm wasn’t really a problem when the conflict ended, but when he returned to the Swedish Lutheran community of his birth, he brought a first-generation, Italian Catholic girl from Bayonne, New Jersey, back as his wife.

Yes, she was different. She “tawked” funny. She smoked. She knew how to make all kinds of cocktails. She used colorful language, and chanted Hail Mary’s aloud on her thick black rosary, while she streaked down the rutted country roads in her green Chevy. And when she cooked up a storm, which was often, most everything she made looked odd and had strange Eye-talian names.

By extension, her five children were also different. When we vacationed, we went to visit my mother’s people “out East.” I was the first in my tiny class of 40 to see the Empire State Building and visit Washington, D.C. My Uncle Sonny (yes, that’s really what we called him) took us to see the World Trade Center as it was being built. He’d drive us around Manhattan and taught us how to spot the hookers on the streets. (Thanks to him, I was also the first in my class to know what a hooker is.)

And while Catholics are not uncommon in Iowa, in my little town of Essex, they were rare. I was one of two in my graduating class. Yes, my young Protestant friends asked about my Catholicism. “Does that mean you can’t dance?” I’d answer no, but, sadly, had to admit I couldn’t pin that on the Church. I remember explaining to my friend Paulette what a bagel is, and laughed till I cried when my friend Melanie asked me what country my mother was from because of her Jersey accent. As a young adult, I’ve stood in an Iowa grocery store and tried to explain the Italian voodoo that is eggplant Parmesan to a curious, elderly farm woman who seriously asked, “Now what are you going to do with that?”

Sometimes, how we stood out in our little community was bothersome, especially when I was a teen-ager and all I wanted was to fit in. But I got lucky there. My mother, the very source of our differences, would have none of my self-pity. You have friends, she’d tell me, true friends. When they ask questions that means they’re interested in you. They care. They want to understand you better. That’s a compliment. And Mom always reminded me that if I stood out, I still belonged. Be glad, she’d insist, that you are unique among the many.

Turning to my father didn’t get me any sympathy either. One night, in full teen-drama-queen mode, I cried, “Why do I have to be the different one?” That Iowa farm boy, whom Bloom would have you believe saw no further than the east pasture, lowered his paper and fixed me with his deep blue, Swedish eyes. “Mimi,” he said, “it’s been my experience people are pretty much the same everywhere. Don’t blame others if you’re uncomfortable. You have to find the common ground.”

Keep in mind this was all in the 1960s and 70s. I’m well into my 50s now. The last time I lived in Iowa was for 2 years, beginning in 2008. Much had changed, including a population that was more worldly. But some things were the same. The culture is still based in agriculture. There was still a lot of discussion of the weather (Cedar Rapids suffered the worst flood in its history) and crop prices. But religion? No. I met and became friends with many people. I couldn’t tell you the religion (if any) of a single one. It just never came up.

So, when Bloom puts himself in the position of a native Iowan and says to the Washington Post, “When you look at someone in the local grocery store you’re thinking, ‘What religion is that person?’ ” I can only put it down as a very quirky paranoia. Why does he think, “Religion is right at the forefront of every discussion,” when fewer than half the population say they attend church regularly?

I understand that Stephen Bloom’s Judaism, both by faith and culture, is outside the Iowa norm. And, in spite of his obvious hyperbole, he probably has been approached by an evangelical or two. Just as I have – in Nebraska, Kansas, Virginia, New York City and Washington, D.C. In fact, in my experience, the person who most strongly challenged my Catholic upbringing and proselytized me to the point of tears was my own mother-in-law. And she would have told you up front that she was no Iowan. Proudly born and bred in the diverse city of Chicago, she was a military wife who traveled the world. She would also be the first to take offense at her son using the phrase, “Come-to-Jesus meeting,” that Bloom holds up as evidence of Iowans’ pervasive Bible-thumping. FYI, Mr. Bloom, the deeply devout find that a use of the Lord’s name in vain. If you really hear it that often, it’s being said by us unrepentant sinners.

If, after 20 years living in Iowa, Bloom still feels like an outsider, maybe the time has come for him to look inward. My mother was just as different. But she embraced her neighbors. She generously answered their questions. And if one or two were put awkwardly, well, she reminded herself that they forgave her inborn bluntness and city-bred impatience. Sure, there were times when she felt uncomfortable. But she knew clods are not unique to Iowa, and if she let a few make her feel bad, that had more to do with herself than them. She found her own, special way to be part of the community, a gem among them, loved for the very differences that could have been so divisive. When she died she was sincerely mourned and deeply missed.

Mr. Bloom, my family was different by Iowa standards. Just as different as yours. And yet somehow, no matter where I live now (and being married to a journalist, I seem to always be on the move), I still consider Iowa home. I still love it, with a gut-level sense of belonging that can only be described as a family tie.

I suggest, Mr. Bloom, you follow an Iowa farm boy’s advice. Don’t blame others for your discomfort. Oh, and by the way, that farm boy owned many dogs but never took one of them hunting. They were family pets. Just like yours.