Remember state Rep. Bill Mitchell’s plan to create two new states by divorcing Cook County from the rest of Illinois? If Mitchell had succeeded, Rick Santorum may have won a presidential primary on Tuesday.
Mitt Romney did well in northeastern Illinois, and in most Downstate counties with a city -- Bloomington, Springfield, Peoria, Champaign, East St. Louis -- but everywhere else was Santorum Country.
As a former resident of Central Illinois, this did not surprise me a bit. I lived for two-and-a-half years in Decatur (when Mitchell was a city councilman), and I encountered plenty of people whose main political preoccupations were guns and sex.
For a while, I attended a Methodist church whose pastor told me I couldn’t be a Christian without being a political conservative.
“Christianity is conservative on many issues,” he said, then listed several, all of which concerned reproduction. “Abortion, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, birth control.”
“But those all have to do with sex,” I protested. “Regulating sex isn’t really the government’s job.”
Later, he circulated a petition among the congregation, urging the United Methodist Church not to ordain homosexuals. (It was not planning to do so, and still hasn’t.)
I’ll give the pastor credit for this, too: when his 16-year-old daughter became pregnant, she had the baby, and the entire church looked out for her. The man’s family practiced what he preached.
The pastor and I didn’t see eye to eye on our interpretation of the Bible, but he didn’t give me a hard time when I wrote a six-part series on the local gay community for the Decatur Herald & Review, entitled “Struggle For Acceptance: Gay In Central Illinois.” Plenty of readers did, though: 34 people cancelled their subscriptions, and I got a phone call from reader who told me, in the politest way, that he was concerned tolerance of homosexuality would inevitably lead to tolerance of bestiality. We frequently received letters to the editor insisting that the Bible prohibited interracial marriage and required male heads of household to own guns. In Central Illinois, you never scheduled public meetings on Wednesday night, because a significant portion of the populace was in church then.
One night, I was writing a story about a pro-gun rally, and called the spokesman for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence to get an opposing point of view. The man lived in Evanston, and seemed not to understand the event I was writing about.
“Was it a shooting competition?” he asked.
“No. It was just a bunch of people who got together and talked about how they were going to protect their guns.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” he said.
You need to get out of Chicago more often, I thought.
Once, I was driving through a wide spot in the road named Hord, when a rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a service shop. I passed the time until the rain stopped by reading the pamphlets the owner had set out in a rack beside the counter. One asked, “Everyone in favor of gun control, please raise your hand,” and featured photos of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini giving the fascist salute. The others were Jack Chick style tracts threatening non-believers with the worst sort of hell. Hord is not far from Effingham, which is the site of a 198-foot-tall steel cross, and is the most conservative city in Illinois. Santorum took 61 percent of the vote in Effingham County.
I didn’t last long in Central Illinois. It wasn’t just the conservatism. I like big lakes, cool breezes and deep woods, so life on the prairie didn’t suit me. But I lived there long enough to understand why it was Santorum Country on Tuesday.