Robert Wuthnow, Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, remarked in a recent interview with PUP that he’d spent most of his career writing about religion, and thus his new book, In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families can seem a departure. But farming has more to tell us about religion than meets the eye. Read on as he contemplates the unique relationship between farming and faith.
Farmers’ Faith, by Robert Wuthnow
In Worst Hard Time writer Timothy Egan describes Depression-era farmers believing God was punishing them for shooting rabbits on Sunday. Others knelt knee-deep in dust praying fervently for rain. Theirs was a simple faith: pray hard, live right, and expect God’s blessings in return.
Farmers’ relationship to God has fascinated writers for centuries. Biblical narratives tell of shepherds and sheep and gleaners and wheat. The agrarian ideal that interested Enlightenment writers valued farmers’ particular understanding of nature’s God. Writers today — Wendell Berry, for example — call attention to the spiritual serenity of farms and fields.
Can we learn something important from farmers? Do their lives, spent so close to the soil and so dependent on nature, generate insights that may have escaped the rest of us?
I grew up on a farm in a community where everyone believed in God. I’m sure some of them prayed for rain. I imagine many of them talked to God in the quiet of their fields. But times have changed. The solitary farmer out hoeing the field is a relic. Farmers now operate expensive GPS-guided tractors while on-board computers monitor the soil. How has all that changed farmers’ thinking about God?
Writing In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families gave me an opportunity to explore farmers’ thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion. The book draws on lengthy interviews with two hundred farmers. They varied in age, gender, region, kind of farming, and religious background. Some farmed only a few acres; others farmed tens of thousands of acres.
Farmers’ faith is still arguably simple. It varies from person to person, just as it does for other people. But it converges on a basic point. Whatever the language used to describe God, God represents an assurance that things will work out. And working out does not imply that what happens will be what a person wants. Praying for rain does not increase the chances that it will rain. It is just a reminder that God, not you, is in charge. As one farmer explained, “When you get to thinking you’re running the show, that’s when you’ve got a problem. God’s got a way of saying, I’ll show you who’s running the show.”
Farmers with this view of God said it was born of hard times – and sustained them in those times. A farm couple struggling to avoid losing everything a second time said they liked being independent but kept being reminded that they had to trust in God. Another farmer said he had been so depressed from a farm accident that he prayed to die. It was hard for him to believe that God was on his side, but it helped knowing that God was there no matter what happened.
The logic in these remarks is similar to the view of God that has been identified in other studies. Even though a person prays to God or works hard in hopes of pleasing God, the idea is not that what a person does actually causes God to respond in a certain way. A farmer may hope that prayer will bring rain, but the exact nature of that hope has less to do with rain than with being aware of God’s existence and thankful for God’s presence.
Perhaps farmers had an advantage in being aware of God’s existence. Many of them described something ineffable they could only refer to as “the big picture.” The big picture was an understanding of life from seeing the crops grow and working with animals. Farmers knew they played a part in nurturing life. But they realized their role was only a small part of the big picture.
One more thing: Sometimes you learn as much from what people don’t say as from what they do say. Many of these farmers lived in conservative communities. A few were Tea Party Republicans. They hated the federal government telling them how to farm. But they didn’t defend their politics with religious arguments. And they were fed up with politicians who did.
Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).