The Ballad of Dick and Betty Odgaard

Betty and Dick Odgaard, in a campaign video for Ted Cruz.

Cruz Campaign/YouTube

The New York Times published a soft-focus tribute to the fallen soldiers of the culture war on Thursday that doubles as a helpful Rorschach test for your views on religious liberty. Do you think free exercise of religion includes a right for business owners to discriminate against people they view as sinful? You will finish the article lachrymose and melancholy. Do you think the religious right is using the cry of “religious liberty” to justify invidious discrimination against groups it has always disliked? You may well emerge from the piece with the startling revelation that many of the discriminators are not vile, hateful bigots: They are sad and lonely and confused, manipulated for political purposes and then abandoned, trapped in a life that has not provided them with the cultural or economic dominance they were raised to expect.

Written in a gently empathetic mode by Laurie Goodstein—an excellent reporter—the Times article focuses on devout Mennonites Dick and Betty Odgaard. The Odgaards once ran a for-profit art gallery, flower shop, and bistro in a former church, which they also rented out for weddings. But the Odgaards refused to rent out the space to same-sex couples, humiliating one gay couple by telling them: “I can’t take your money, and we don’t do anything for free.” The couple filed a complaint with the state civil rights commission; the Odgaards ultimately settled the case for $5,000, which the gay couple donated to an anti-gay bullying program. The Odgaards then stopped renting out the space for any weddings, and eventually sold it to Harvest Bible Chapel, an evangelical congregation. During his presidential campaign, Ted Cruz featured the Odgaards in videos and rallies touting his religious liberty bona fides.

Goodstein then zooms in on Odgaards’ experience of modern America:

The change in America seemed to happen so quickly that it felt like whiplash, the Odgaards said. One day, they felt comfortably situated in the American majority, as Christians with shared beliefs in God, family and the Bible. They had never even imagined that two people of the same sex could marry.

Overnight, it seemed, they discovered that even in small-town Iowa they were outnumbered, isolated and unpopular. Everyone they knew seemed to have a gay relative or friend. Mr. Odgaard’s daughter from his first marriage disavowed her father’s actions on Facebook, and his gay second cousin will not speak to him. Even their own Mennonite congregation put out a statement saying that while the denomination opposes gay marriage, “not every congregation” or Mennonite does. Mrs. Odgaard, 64, the daughter of a Mennonite minister, was devastated.

“It all flipped, so fast,” said Mr. Odgaard, a patrician 70-year-old who favors khakis and boat shoes. “Suddenly, we were in the minority. That was kind of a scary feeling. It makes you wonder where the Christians went.”

The Odgaards are downright despondent that the law has quickly developed to grant legal protections to gay people. And they aren’t alone. Ryan Jorgenson, senior pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel—the congregation that bought the former church—feels their pain. “He expects that more and more Christians will, like the Odgaards, suffer ‘persecution’ for their beliefs,” Goodstein notes. “He regularly visits the Capitol in Des Moines to pray with and lobby legislators with the Family Leader, a conservative Iowa group.”

“My hope is not ultimately in the government,” Jorgenson explains. “I am not of this world. Jesus is going to come back. He’s going to bring the perfect government. Until then, we live in a world of sin.”

Goodstein also profiles Melissa and Tom Berkheimer, two members of Jorgenson’s congregation who, like the Odgaards, have a rather complicated relationship with progress and politics:

Over dinner at a steakhouse recently, the Berkheimers said they had nothing against gay people—a refrain the Odgaards also repeatedly sounded.

“My brother was a homosexual,” Mrs. Berkheimer said. Her brother became a born-again Christian before he died of complications from AIDS many years ago, and she named her son after him, she said.

She said she became seriously alarmed about the nation in the past year as Congress failed to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood after an anti-abortion group released videos taken surreptitiously of the organization. The Berkheimers are in the “Never Trump” camp.

“I’m worried for America if we don’t turn away from abortion,” said Mrs. Berkheimer, who is 48. “I think our country is going to be punished, with a nuclear weapon. I don’t think you can mock God forever.”

She quickly added that she was worried she would sound crazy saying such things.

It is easy to sneer at all of this, or at least to quibble with Goodstein’s somewhat uncritical portrayal of these culture warriors. But I think that would be missing the point. Goodstein has done us a great service, humanizing the people who, until now, have largely been depicted as one-dimensional heroes (by the likes of Cruz) or villains (by the secular progressive left). In reality, Goodstein reminds us, they are neither. Rather, they are human beings who were promised a different future from the one they are inhabiting—one in which their minority status feels “scary.” (That cultural conservatives forced LGBTQ people to live in a state of fear for decades seems lost on them.) Nixon and Reagan’s silent majority was supposed to deliver a 21st century where evangelicals were ascendant, liberalism was collapsing under its ungodly contradictions, and the religious right controlled the levers of power.

Of course, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the country traded in cultural conservatism for libertarian-tinged progressivism. Coastal elites gathered wealth and power; minorities flexed their muscles as a voting bloc; and Middle American fundamentalists like the Odgaards found themselves left behind. That left them doubly vulnerable: Highly susceptible to charlatans like Cruz, and thus endlessly enticing to triumphant lefties—like, well, me—who could easily tout their discriminatory business policies as proof of the religious right’s insidious goals.

But the Odgaards, Goodstein demonstrates, aren’t the true enemy of progressivism. They aren’t even bad people. And they certainly didn’t hope to become the poster children of anti-gay discrimination—a title that distanced them from friends and even family members—the day they kicked a gay couple out of their wedding venue. The Odgaards are simply lost, adrift in a culture they do not recognize, stuck in a movement that has capitulated to Trump faster than anybody anticipated. At bottom, the Odgaards’ story is a tragedy. We needn’t celebrate them—but I now realize that we shouldn’t mock them, either.