This story was published in Issue 2: Silence.
Listen to a conversation about this story with author Lauren Harris and publisher Michael Shapiro on the Delacorte Review Podcast.
In many ways, Sioux County, Iowa, is the same as it has been for a hundred years, crystallized in amber while the rest of the country shifts like sand. It’s an economic, cultural, and political anomaly: booming school districts, low crime rates, more jobs than people. The regional newspaper, The Northwest Iowa REVIEW, is doing well, printing photos of Friday night basketball games in full color. The county is in the northwest corner of the state, twenty miles from Minnesota, fifteen miles from South Dakota, and fifty miles from Nebraska, and the land is flat and vast, a skyline marked by grain elevators: 100-foot silos of steel and concrete, most sites holding a million bushels of wheat, corn, or soybeans. Farmers attend church twice on Sunday and thank God for the harvest. They think to themselves, “This is the real America.” But in this strange and disordered decade, Sioux County has changed too.
I grew up there, and it has been ten years since I graduated high school and moved across the country. I returned as a reporter, with a question on my mind. As I read national news coverage about northwest Iowa voters and northwest Iowa politics, something didn’t feel right. The people in the news stories sounded like monsters, while the people in my memory were some of the best I had ever known. I wondered if Sioux County had changed, or if I had, or if someone, somewhere, had gotten something wrong. So I went back, to listen to people who work and live and worship there. I learned that while it is, in some ways, an homage to an America of another time, Sioux County is also the America of today, bitterly conflicted and riven, equal parts lovely and broken.
The trip from LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, to Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, carried me 1,200 miles, from towering ceilings of neon lights and hundreds of charging stations to a room of carpet and tile with two coffee dispensers and a billboard advertising Cavender’s Western Outfitters, Not Your Ordinary Boot Store. My December flight was the last of the night, touching down at 11:00 in the evening, where the Hertz rental woman had promised me over the phone that the Hertz employees would probably stay “until the last plane clears out.” As passengers made their way to the lobby, five airport employees shoved their arms in coat sleeves and followed behind us.
At the bottom of the escalator, a man in wire-rim glasses and a red windbreaker was holding a sign that said “OmaLink Shuttle.” He smiled at me, a real smile, and I was taken aback by the sincerity of the gesture. I was also surprised when I tugged my suitcase onto the rental shuttle and every man in the vehicle stood up to offer me his seat. On the drive home, snow stuck onto highway signs. I got a text from a high school friend, one of the few remaining in the area. “Be careful on the drive to Sioux Center tonight! It’s freezing rain.”
As I drove the two hours from the airport, that feeling of a wide-open sky came back to me, the world extending endlessly in all directions. I remembered, too, the rough transition from Sioux County to college, in Michigan, where trees and buildings made me feel caged in and cramped, until, over time, I adjusted. But now, as I approached my former home from the airport, what I remembered most of all was how, when the sky is boundless and you can see the whole world, you begin to feel like everything around you is everything there is.
Sioux County has a population of more than 34,000. The largest city, Sioux Center—my hometown—has about 7,500 residents. Orange City, eleven miles away, has just a little more than 6,000, and is the county seat. Aside from those two small cities, there are a smattering of other smaller towns, the smallest of which—Chatsworth—recorded a population of 79 in the 2010 census. The largest percentage of Sioux County residents are employed in manufacturing, according to Data USA, followed by education and healthcare, with the most common jobs in management. An unusually high number of people also work in agriculture, compared to national averages. The county is surrounded and supported by miles and miles of loamy, fertile farmland.
As I made my way around my old home, I was frequently confronted by memories—some sudden and solid, others creeping and subtle—but I had work to do and questions to ask. Because it is a place of deep and abiding faith, I reached out to speak to Reverend John Lee, pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church on South Main Avenue in Sioux Center, the town in the center of the county, where I grew up. Though I didn’t know him personally, Reverend Lee had performed wedding ceremonies for several of my friends. He had also thought a lot about the nature of the place where he leads a congregation. “People here place seeds into the earth every spring, hoping and praying that they’ll see sun and rain in equal measure until the harvest,” Lee told me. “Faith is baked into the fabric of farming. The commodity market, the hail, the winter freeze—none of it is in your control. You’re standing in front of a big sky and regarding your smallness.”
Sioux County is predominantly white and Protestant. Politically, it is largely Republican. The county has voted steadfastly for the GOP in nearly every presidential election since the Civil War. The exception was Franklin Roosevelt, who carried the county in 1932. He carried the county again in 1936, but by a smaller margin. By the time Roosevelt ran for his third term, the county had had enough, and it has voted Republican ever since.
Iowa’s Fourth District, which includes Sioux County, is represented by Steve King, a controversial figure both at the national level and in the county itself. In January, House Republican leaders removed King from his committee assignments in response to a statement he made in an interview with The New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” the paper quoted him as saying. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
This sort of statement from King is not entirely new. He has received criticism over his sixteen years in Washington for making various polarizing statements in a variety of public forums, though certain comments have become more and more troubling in recent memory. When King was first elected in 2002, he won the Republican primary with 30% of the vote in both his district and the county, winning the election with 62% of district votes—and a whopping 87% of Sioux County. Though he was not the county’s first choice in the primary, once he became the prevailing Republican candidate, they threw their support behind him. Many valued his dedication to Christian faith issues, and still do, particularly his stance against abortion. Since his first election, King has run largely uncontested in Republican primaries and enjoyed a solid 80% of the vote, or higher, in every Sioux County election until this year.
But in 2013, King told Newsmax that for every immigrant “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” During the 2018 election cycle, King retweeted a notorious British Neo-Nazi who posted that “65% of Italians under the age of 35 now oppose mass immigration. Europe is waking up….” He also endorsed Faith Goldy, a Canadian mayoral candidate who is a controversial figure herself in a host of complex ways, her white nationalist rhetoric resulting in a Facebook ban in April 2019. King’s comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” has been particularly divisive among his constituents in the Fourth District, spurring concerned Op-Eds, protests, and full-page newspaper ads denouncing his candidacy.
In 2018, Steve King received 8% fewer votes in Sioux County than he did in 2016. Overall, in the district, King only won the 2018 election by 10,430 votes—some 3.4% over Democrat J.D. Scholten. And 10,824 votes for King came from Sioux County, according to Iowa Secretary of State records. Though the 2018 election was the closest King experienced in his career, still, 74% of Sioux County voted for him in the primaries and 72% in the general election, the highest percentage of any county in the district. In 2018, while the rest of the thirty-eight counties in the Fourth District stepped away from him to an extent, nearly three in four Sioux County voters picked King to represent them.
When I went back home to report after the election, I saw a life I might have lived if I had stayed.
In Sioux County, newly married college graduates settle into homes that they decorate with Bible verses and hymn lyrics—signs painted with careful calligraphy: “It Is Well With My Soul.” The local paint producer, Diamond Vogel, established by a Dutch immigrant nearly 100 years ago, sells popular shades like Blessed Blue, Quiet Peace, and Corinthian Pillar.
In 2015, the Times, citing a Harvard study, identified Sioux County as the second-best county in the nation for upward mobility. “Every year a poor child spends in Sioux County adds about $460 to his or her annual household income at age twenty-six, compared with a childhood spent in the average American county,” the study said.
“Sioux County is the essence of the American dream,” Tim Allen, the Republican county chair, told me. “And the Republican Party is the party of opportunity, the party of pragmatism—empowering people to get the most out of themselves.”
Yet Allen also points out that many residents don’t consider themselves political. God’s people, after all, are one people. Some see politics as the antithesis of community, of togetherness. “People here are twenty to thirty years behind the rest of the country in cynicism,” Allen said. “There’s an innocence in Sioux County that’s hard to believe for folks who have seen more of the outside world.”
I remember well this sensibility, and felt it strongly. Many people in my hometown view themselves as a close-knit group that looks out for its own, both long-timers and newcomers. There are divisions, of course, as county supervisors, political leaders, church pastors, and new arrivals will tell you, but only within the bounds of a certain sense of unity and civility. As the Reverend Lee put it, in his nuanced way, “There’s a deep cohesion in the community that can be in parts wonderful and limiting. There’s a strong connection between local businesses, schools, and churches, and that can be life-giving if you’re within that community. In some ways, however, it’s a Tale of Two Cities. That cohesion, for people on the inside, gives them reason to put down deep roots and flourish. But for people outside those circles, it’s a reason to shake the dust off their boots and move along.”
Last year, a woman whom I will call Melissa Brown became the focus of one of Sioux County’s most bitter disputes in the 2018 midterm election, bitter enough that she does not want her name to appear in print, not again.
Like me, Brown grew up in Sioux Center, in a Christian family. A mother of five in her early forties, she has an open smile—a beautiful one. When I asked to meet with her, she invited me to her house, saying she’d be more comfortable if we met in a private space. Her home was lovely and sunny, with cheery colors and an open interior. It was a cold morning, and she offered me a glass of water and led me into a glassy, high-ceilinged sunroom, closing the door behind us.
Brown was quiet and careful throughout our conversation. Her eyes were warm and welcoming, but they glanced at my pen each time I picked it up or put it down. It was clear that she felt wounded by recent events, and by the role both the press and political actors on social media had played. But she also wanted to make it known that she has long loved her hometown and defended its people. “It’s not backwards, I’ve always said,” she told me, leaning forward to put her mug of tea on the floor in front of her. “People are good and loving, and they join together in crisis to support one another. I used to say that a lot.”
Like me, Brown attended a local Christian grade school and a Christian high school. She told me that her father was an especially proud Republican, and she remembered working alongside him in their garage when she was young, listening to Rush Limbaugh on a crackling radio. Her family has always been proud of its politics. In the 1980s, her grandfather donated regularly to the Moral Majority—an organization that promoted Christian values in the political arena.
“I was so proud when I got my Republican Party membership,” Brown said, tucking a long blond curl behind her ear. “I carried the card around in my wallet, right next to my driver’s license, for years.”
She met her husband, who I will call Reuben, at a college just down the road. The couple have committed their daily lives to the restoration of a Biblical kingdom that, in their estimation, is multicolored and boundless: every tribe and tongue and nation. And they live it. The Browns have five children, from four different countries: two in North America, two in Africa. Reuben is Canadian himself, and the couple lived in the Canadian rockies for a number of years post-college. “We like to think of ourselves as global citizens,” Melissa Brown said, adding that it’s easier to feel that way when your children’s backgrounds span continents.
In 2006, the Browns co-founded a non-profit organization that works alongside churches in West Africa. While adopting their son, they met a local pastor and kept up correspondence, building a connection to his church. Over the years, their partnership grew, and today the organization provides support and finances for a number of West African churches, encouraging farming and agricultural programs as well as education, and seeking homes and support for orphans.
One of the organization’s primary goals is to build long-term relationships between Christians in America and Christians in West Africa. Melissa Brown travels to West Africa regularly, often bringing other Sioux County residents along. In 2013, while the Browns were there for the Christmas holiday, they did some work in a local orphanage and met a little girl. She had arrived at the orphanage with sores in her throat and stomach, a condition that made it difficult for her to eat, or even swallow. The non-profit worked for a year attempting to secure a medical visa that would allow the little girl to travel to a country with better medical care. The visa was denied, so the Browns adopted her. They brought their new daughter to Sioux Center for medical treatment.
The social-media vitriol targeting Melissa Brown began in the winter of 2018, but it was intensified and complicated by protests against her husband that began a year or so earlier.
Reuben Brown is a spiritual leader at a local Christian school. He preaches regularly and speaks at Christian conferences, camps, and schools, often focusing on issues of sexuality, culture, and identity. In a community that has recently been rocked by two sexual-misconduct scandals, one at a local elementary school and another at a local college, the Browns have led workshops with local families, helping them to process the trauma and better understand contemporary issues relating to human sexuality: pornography, sexual abuse, “good touch/bad touch.”
Reuben Brown drew the attention of a local website called ReformationIowa.com, published and curated by anonymous moderators, which went public sometime in 2017 and remains quite active. According to its “About” page, the site’s purpose is to expose “theological error in area churches and Christian institutions”—to hold local religious leadership accountable to Christian Scripture by exposing evidence of “false teaching within our once sound Christian institutions,” to use their words. ReformationIowa.com collects and publishes concerns, gathered often from anonymous sources, about a list of institutions—everything from colleges that employ professors who teach evolution to local libraries that stock books about LGBTQ+ characters.
The website’s testimonial page solicits tips from student informers: “Have your own testimony of false teachings going on at your school, church or other institution? It is our mission to call out false teachers and hold our spiritual leaders accountable to biblical teaching! Your names can be withheld from the stories, just put anonymous in the name field!”
Reuben Brown’s name came up repeatedly on the website, which cited his public comments and statements he made, liked, or retweeted on social media. Eventually, the site compiled an official list of “false teaching charges.” The list, twelve in all, included Brown’s public description of various Christian approaches to homosexuality—viewing his unwillingness to condemn homosexuality outright as a form of tacit approval; his assertion that Scripture may not be clear on the issue; and his comment that Christians at a gay pride parade who “loved without reservation or self-protection in mind… sounded a lot like Jesus.”
Explaining its insistence on anonymity, the site declared in October of 2018, “We do not name the sources for our stories or list authors for our stories. We do not want to experience the persecution that is increasingly coming on people in academics and in private life who are showing the courage to stand up against such homosexual fascists.”
The existence of a site like ReformationIowa.com suggests that Sioux County, though homogeneous, is not monolithic. I asked Reverend Lee, whose own economically diverse congregation is made up of farmers, teachers, immigrants, and business owners, about the posture of the people in the county. “There’s a bifurcation between the singular and aggressive rhetoric of individual elected officials, like Steve King, and the complexity of the people they represent on the ground,” he said. “Political discourse is increasingly one-dimensional, which is not how people are. They’re complex.”
In fact, many locals I spoke to were uncomfortable with the anonymous website, a sentiment similar to many locals’ feelings toward Steve King. Civility, however, is a trait that is highly valued. On the flip side of civility, however, there’s a tendency to float along with the status quo, to be polite. Mark Sybesma, the County Supervisor, has lived in the area all his life. “I know people coming from the city are sometimes uncomfortable with the lack of anonymity,” he says. “Everyone knows you, and who you are, and what you say. When it’s good, it means a kind of integrity or consistency, but it can turn to conformity.”
Travis Andersen, the local chair of the Democratic Party, puts it differently. “Here, for better or ill, you’re always thinking about other people,” he said, mentioning the ways in which people in the community are constantly considering opportunities to help one another: offering small jobs to people out of work or supporting a new building for the public high school. But, “When it turns to always thinking about what other people think,” he added, “ it becomes a problem.”
Fractures in Sioux County’s social foundations are likely to appear within the community as tiny, spidering fissures of passive dissidence rather than as earthquakes. And citizens are most united when they’re protecting something shared. “People here read the news and see things like crime rates in Chicago, conflict in New York City, and the divisions of families across the country through animosity or divorce,” Reverend Lee says. “Then they look at themselves and see that families are together. They leave their doors unlocked and their cars running when they run into the store. There’s a grieving of the world outside these walls, and a sense that the rest of the world still could be what it is here. I think people in my congregation and in my community worry that if the world as we see it outside came in, we’re not sure that whatever we might gain would outweigh the great loss.”
Sybesma, the County Supervisor, disagrees. “The outside world has already come in,” he says. “Thirty or forty years ago, we were still insulated, but the advent of the Internet has opened Sioux County residents up to a much broader world.” Travis Andersen, the Democratic chair, has noticed changes, too. In the eleven years since he moved to the area, he says, “people aren’t as afraid to speak up and share their voice anymore.”
Sybesma himself, perhaps, provided an example of that—as someone unafraid to voice his discomfort with Steve King. “What he has said over the years has appalled me personally. I don’t understand it at all. But people are willing to look past it, I guess.”
“You know what,” he added. “I’m sixty-five, you can quote me—I don’t care if people know that I don’t like Steve King.”
As King’s re-election campaign took shape in 2017, his public comments began to bother many in the community. A group of local pastors met with him to express some concerns. A few local business owners got together and put a full-page ad in the Sioux Center News to denounce King’s platform. Over time, Reuben and Melissa Brown also found King’s words impossible to ignore.
“We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies,” King tweeted in May.
That one hit home. In response, Reuben Brown tweeted an invitation to the congressman, in which he offered a home-cooked meal and the opportunity to meet a “beautiful, diverse family” and reconsider his words.
King didn’t reply.
Melissa Brown began watching campaign videos for a candidate named J.D. Scholten, a six-foot-six Democrat with a pleasant gap-toothed smile and a Winnebago van he called Sioux City Sue. Scholten’s website promoted a political mishmash: support for healthcare reform and gun ownership, support for legalized abortion but moral dedication to its prevention, support for gay marriage.
Brown met Scholten for the first time at a political rally in Orange City. He seemed kind and steady, his temperament underlined by a soft-spoken passion. “Exactly the man we thought he’d be,” she told me. She staked a Scholten sign in her front yard. She heard that a few locals were calling her “brave.” But bravery requires risk, she thought, and she didn’t see any risk in supporting Scholten.
A few weeks later, Brown wrote a letter to her local paper, The Sioux Center News.
I had the privilege of growing up in Sioux Center surrounded by beautiful, hardworking people who loved the Lord and took their faith and their community very seriously. It would stand to reason that in keeping with my personal history I would eagerly vote for Steve King in the upcoming election. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When Scholten’s campaign manager approached her about appearing in campaign videos, she agreed. She was featured in a thirty-second spot for eleven seconds, and a ninety-second spot for thirteen.
“Card-carrying Republican and listening to Rush Limbaugh,” she says in one. “It was a part of who I was.” Later, she calls Steve King “divisive” and “angry.” She mentions how impressed she is that Scholten has made an appearance in every county in the district. In the other video, she says, “I think we need change in Sioux County, because Steve King does not represent us well.” There’s a shot of two of her children sitting across from her at their kitchen island, reaching for silverware. She says, “My diverse family does not feel like we have a home here.”
In Iowa, Brown’s public dissenting view of King was news that rippled across the state. Rekha Basu, a reporter from the Des Moines Register, asked for an interview. In Basu’s article—“Steve King’s base shows cracks over his rhetoric on immigrants, Kavanaugh investigation”—Brown was featured prominently, described as “an evangelical Christian who once headed Northwest Iowa Right to Life.” The article said Brown planned to vote for Scholten, adding that King’s stances on immigration and Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh contributed to her unease with his candidacy.
News traveled further, reaching Luke Barnes, a reporter for ThinkProgress, a left-leaning national outlet that is a project of a progressive group called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. A young British ex-pat with a degree in politics from Columbia University, Barnes had long been interested in King and his constituents, particularly those who didn’t agree with him. He followed J.D. Scholten around on his Iowa campaign trail, and sought out contacts among Iowa Republicans who were frustrated with King.
“I spoke to a good number of people that Scholten’s campaign manager set me up with, and they were helpful, but Melissa was a bit kinder than everyone else,” Barnes recalled. “You know, she invited me in, walked me through the history of her family roots, told me her personal history. She was extremely helpful and kind.”
Brown remembers that the interview lasted a long time. Barnes sat in the Brown’s sunroom for several hours, sinking into the sea-blue cushions, asking thoughtful questions, listening carefully. Brown was impressed by the young reporter. He was impressed by Melissa Brown.
“Melissa was very respectful and responsive to my questions, as opposed to pushing something on me herself, which some people do,” Barnes added. “Forgive me for stating the obvious, but she seemed very … Christian. She was very obviously anti-abortion, but I remember being surprised that she took the next step and adopted a kid. She followed her values through to a logical conclusion.”
Barnes’ article began by mentioning Brown and another Scholten supporter.
IOWA CITY, IOWA — Danielle Postma and Melissa Brown have a fair
amount in common. Both are mothers-of-four and natives of
Iowa’s northwestern 4th District. Both have been card-carrying
members of the Republican party for years, both are anti-abortion. But
most importantly, both are sick to death of their representative, Steve
King, and his continually vile rhetoric.
The article went on:
Brown said she previously voted for King in part over his anti-
abortion stances and “traditional” family values. “I didn’t really think, I
voted straight ticket Republican,” she said. “That’s what I was told to
do and that’s what I was told a good Christian did.”
This time around, though, Brown plans to cast her vote against the
sitting congressman, even if others in her religious community won’t do
“[Evangelicals] don’t want their traditional values of two kids and a
white picket fence and a dog challenged,” she said. “The means justify
the ends in their minds as long as we’re going to elect somebody
who’s going to vote against LGBT rights and is pro-life.”
Brown’s frustration with King has subsequently led her to support his
Democratic rival, J.D. Scholten. . . . She even wrote a
letter to the editor of the local paper about her disappointment with
King, to help others understand.
“I wrote the letter and put it in the paper and everyone I talked to said I
was so brave,” she said. “What, I’m not allowed to have a different
political opinion? Getting the Republicans around here to believe that
you can love Jesus and be a Democrat, I think that’s a really hard pill
for them to swallow. I think for so long they’ve believed that being
Republican is synonymous with being Christian.”
When a local political group called the Sioux County Conservatives saw the news coverage of Melissa Brown, something did not seem right to them. The Scholten campaign, the Des Moines Register, and ThinkProgress all seemed to be depicting Brown as a Republican—a characterization they disputed. They felt that the Browns’ reputation within the community did not quite fit with the traditional idea of “Steve King’s base.” Jacob Hall, a local sports news editor and conservative activist, reached out to the Iowa Secretary of State to learn what he could about Brown’s voting history.
Hall was told that Brown’s voting record showed evidence of a vote in only one primary election. There was no evidence that she had ever registered as a Republican. What was more, in 2008, she had registered as a Democrat.
“BOMBSHELL,” the Sioux County Conservatives announced on their Facebook page, on November 3. “We will be breaking a huge story about J.D. Scholten’s campaign as well as more FAKE NEWS from the Des Moines Register.”
The next day, the group posted Hall’s findings, laying out the claims made by the Scholten campaign, the Des Moines Register, and ThinkProgress.
The J.D. Scholten campaign has aired commercials featuring different Iowans who mostly claim to be either current or former Republican voters. One of those “card-carrying Republicans” is Melissa Brown… Brown has been a registered Democrat since 2008. And, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, she has no Republican activity in her history. Yet the J.D. Scholten campaign and liberal fake news media has gone forward with the deceiving story…
The post noted that Brown was mentioned in the Register article early on, “though she clearly is not a member of “Steve King’s base… Three paragraphs in, Basu writes that Brown is voting for King’s Democratic opponent—as if that’s something new.”
The post went on to denounce Barnes’s ThinkProgress piece.
Brown is called someone who has been a ‘card-carrying member’ of the Republican party. Later in the story, Brown says she previously voted for King, but this time around, she plans to cast her vote against the sitting Congressman.
Brown has been a registered Democrat at least for King’s last four elections, so again, it is unlikely that this is news… There is zero doubt that the ad paid for by J.D. Scholten’s campaign is a total deception, if not an outright lie… This is why 72% of Americans believe ‘traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading,’ according to a poll from Axios and SurveyMonkey.
The post got forty-eight shares on Facebook, including one by the Greene County G.O.P.
The Facebook outcry against Melissa Brown, in turn, drew comments from all over the state. Of the thirty-eight remaining comments that weren’t removed by the admins on the Sioux County Conservative Facebook page, only two are from within Brown’s own county. Nine are unidentified.
From Cherokee County: “What kind of person would lie like that?”
From Sac County: “Not surprising. The dems cant win fairly and have to resort to deception to win at all cost…sad.”
From Sioux County: “So typical.”
Two days later, Steve King retweeted the post, adding some of his own flavor: “Wow!” he wrote, adding that Brown’s “blatant lies expose the truth about Leftist “faith” community.” King’s post was retweeted sixty-seven times.
The Sioux County Conservatives are not affiliated with ProtestantReformation.com, but like ProtestantReformation divides religious believers, the group similarly divides political conservatives into two categories: true believers and Republicans in Name Only (RINOs).
The group was formed in 2016, in response to a primary between three Republican candidates for a seat in the Iowa state legislature. One of the candidates, Jeff VanderWerff, taught political science at a local Christian college, and the group considered him “a liberal masquerading as a Republican.”
“Is Jeff VanderWerff right for Sioux County Republicans?” two writers posted on a blog called Caffeinated Thoughts. “A stroll through VanderWerff’s past statements and tweets reveal a Republican more likely reflective of Iowa City than Sioux County.”
The article went on to use VanderWerff’s tweets and retweets to expose him as a moderate: his concerns about gun access in the climate of mass shootings; his refusal to support Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who illegally denied a marriage license to a same-sex couple; his aversion to Ted Cruz’s statement that President Obama was “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism.” Meanwhile, Jacob Hall, a group leader, served as a campaign manager for a young, outspoken candidate named Skyler Wheeler. The Sioux County Conservatives picked up a following. VanderWerff lost the election to Wheeler, his former student.
Today, the group has strong political connections across the state. The board organizes monthly events called Pizza and Policy, inviting local community members to come listen to conservative politicians and religious leaders from outside the area. One occasion featured a couple from Des Moines who lost their events venue after refusing to rent to a gay wedding; another brought in the family of a young girl who was killed in a car crash with an illegal immigrant driver.
The group’s most effective outlet is its Facebook page, which is dominated by sarcastic memes. In one, posted in the midst of the investigation into US Supreme Court Justice candidate Brett Kavanaugh, an oil painting of Abraham Lincoln smiles slightly behind the words, “I haven’t seen Democrats this mad since Republicans freed their slaves.” Another uses a picture of Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono, after her December 2018 comments that people have a hard time connecting to Democrats because of their tendency to speak intellectually rather than emotionally. “Hirono says people have a hard time relating to Democrats because of how smart they are,” it announces. “Smart? They don’t even know there are actually two genders.”
Commenters often use the group as a platform to solicit trolling tips from their followers. “Give me a Trump nickname for this far leftist,” Skyler Wheeler wrote on an October post about Frank Schaeffer, an author and activist who came to speak in Sioux Center. “Fruitcake Frank,” someone responded.
I asked Tim Allen, the county Republican chair, what he thought of the group. “The Sioux County Conservatives are the epitome of a passionate grassroots organization,” he said. “They’re not the same thing as the Sioux County Republican Party”—he paused for a moment—“And they’re not subtle.”
Jacob Hall, a short man with close-cropped brown hair, agreed to meet me at Butler’s Cafe and Coffee, tucked off West 1st street in downtown Sioux Center. Unlike the cartoonish trolling of the Sioux County Conservative memes, Hall was calm and confident, and his tone was reasonable. There is no mistaking his intelligence.
Hall is in his mid-thirties. His most arresting features are his eyes: He has a reporter’s gaze—direct, steady, and studying. He keeps his cell phone in the inside pocket of his coat; while he’s talking to you he can somehow pull it out and glance at it without seeming to lose eye contact. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa’s capital, but he told me had little interest in politics until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I grew, I got older,” he said, rolling a paper coffee cup between his palms on the table in front of him. “I had an actual Born Again experience. And now faith directs everything I say or do politically.”
Hall moved from the eastern side of the state to Sioux Center in 2007, to write for the Sioux Center News. Today, in addition to his work at the paper, he is a regular contributor to a few different conservative local news websites, along with his work with The Sioux County Conservatives.
I asked him whether he considers his day-job as a reporter to be in conflict with his political activism.
Hall grinned at the question. “I don’t report on politics, I report on sports,” he said. “I do political columns from time to time.” He believes that a Christian conservative news site’s clearly advertised worldview gives him authority to speak within that sphere. Besides, he added, nobody is impartial, and liberal media outlets aren’t even trying to hide their political persuasion anymore.
“What’s your ultimate guide and your ultimate authority?” he asked, tapping the lid of his coffee cup. For Hall, that’s scripture. Mankind, he said, is increasingly concerned with the wrong priorities. That includes establishment politics and establishment journalism.
In fact, Hall considers certain journalism-industry standards to be limiting, even oppressive. The AP Stylebook, a grammar and language reference produced each year by The Associated Press, is one example. “It’s is nothing more than a liberal guidebook,” Hall said. “It’s supposed to be the Bible for journalists, but it’s so far from the Bible it’s actually sad. You think people in Sioux County want to read the words ‘pro-choice’ in their newspaper? Conservatives don’t have their own AP Stylebook.”
Who gets to decide, then?
Hall leaned back in his chair. “People should be able to represent their own community. Owners of the media company should be able to direct the narrative.”
How did he feel about deleting opposing comments on a Facebook page—a common practice in far-right media outlets, including the Sioux County Conservatives. Isn’t dialogue important?
He didn’t think so, not in this case. “We’ve spent time and money to fulfill our mission—not to engage with liberals,” Hall said, “We have kids and jobs. We can’t sit and babysit Facebook all day,” adding, “We’re the Sioux County Conservatives. We’re not the Sioux County Liberals or the Sioux County Hmm, What Do I Think About This?”
He paused. “Hold on.”
He pulled out his cell phone again and set it on the table in between us, tapping and swiping to open his voicemails. When he found the voicemail he was searching for, he pressed Play. An angry, accusatory voice began to fill the otherwise quiet coffee shop—the voice of one of Hall’s critics. Hall watched me as I listened, his eyebrows slightly raised. As the caller’s shouting reached a painful crescendo, Hall pressed Pause, and the shrieking stopped abruptly.
He sipped his coffee again. “Jesus said, ‘If the world hates you, remember it first hated me,’” Hall said. “If you’re doing it the right way, you’re going to be despised.” Besides, he added, the group has a mission to accomplish, a brand. “If you’re Dairy Queen, you’re not going to invite Baskin-Robbins to sell in your parking lot.”
Hall recalled that, in October, when the site’s criticism of a local gay-pride event received a mudslide of commentary from multiple sides, the administrators deleted more than a thousand comments. “The light and the darkness cannot coexist,” he said.
After Luke Barnes published his interview with Melissa Brown in ThinkProgress, she asked if he would make a slight change in the piece. She wanted to remove the name of one of her family members—that was all. Barnes obliged. In the brief conversation with him, Brown mentioned that things had been a bit difficult, even painful, since the article had been published.
Barnes was surprised, because Brown’s part in his article had played such a small role.
“I intended to tell the story of this very earnest mother who lives in a suburban place, you know, where you see lovely green lawns everywhere,” he told me. “When writing a story, you need to paint a picture. You don’t want to expose too much specific information, because you want it to be broad, to represent more than one person. She was the intro, the crux to my story, but it wasn’t just Melissa’s story.”
Barnes doesn’t remember asking whether or not Brown had ever voted Democrat, “We just talked about how long she’d been there, how she’d been part of a very red community for a long time. It was more about why she had long supported Republicans, and why she was taught to support them.” In Barnes’s mind, the specifics of Melissa Brown’s voting record weren’t the point.
In fact, Brown’s voting record isn’t easy to determine. Before Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, Iowa voting records were kept by individual counties. After HAVA, the state began to gather voting information from each county through a program called i-Voter. Not all the records were transferred over in the shift. It was difficult to match up maiden names with married names, for one thing. Some county records were kept more clearly and carefully than others. After a voter registration is cancelled because of a move to another state or country, it remains on file for about two years at the longest, then it is gone.
Brown was married in 1999, the day after her college graduation. She and Reuben moved to Canada the next year, so Reuben could pursue a Master’s degree. They came back to Sioux County after their first son was born, in September of 2004. According to Iowa Secretary of State records, Brown’s first registration on record is from October 1st, 2004, with no party affiliation. There are votes recorded in 2004, ‘06, ‘08, ‘12, ‘14, ‘16, and ‘18, but the Secretary of State does not share further details. Given the disruptions of the HAVA legislation, the fact that there is no record of her voting in earlier years is not dispositive.
Brown still has the dog-eared card that she received when she registered as a Republican, just after high school, she says. She insists that she continued voting straight-ticket GOP until the move to Canada in 2000; that after her return she voted for King at least once, maybe more; and confirmed that she voted Democrat in the 2008 primary. The Scholten campaign video used a few seconds of Brown’s interview, when she called Republican identity “a part of who I was,” past tense. The Register’s interview with Brown similarly referred to a distant past, when Brown “once” headed the Northwest Iowa Right to Life. When ThinkProgress and the Scholten video depicted Brown as a “card-carrying Republican,” the characterization was incomplete and misleading. Somehow, in the course of the filming and editing of the Scholten videos and the reporting and editing of the Basu and Barnes interviews, a nuance was lost.
Brown paid a price. Throughout the months following the Sioux County Conservatives Facebook post, the Facebook comments continued to roll in, both on the Sioux County Conservatives page and on Brown’s own Facebook. “It was like a mantra,” Brown said of the comments. “Forget she’s your neighbor, forget she’s your friend. We can strip away that humanity, forget who she is, and just leave behind the shell of hate.”
In December, while Reuben and Melissa were leading a fifth grade sex-education workshop at a local school, they offered a brief time for parents to leave anonymous questions by text message.
A blue bubble popped up on Brown’s screen: “You need to renounce your liberal values, right here and now.”
After the next workshop, for sixth-grade students, the Browns agreed that something in the atmosphere of the room didn’t feel quite right. And before the next workshop, administrators received a number of phone complaints from parents. The Browns and administrators mutually agreed to pause the presentation “until things cooled down,” but never ended up re-scheduling.
Then in November, Browns received a letter from a local family withdrawing their support of eleven children through the Browns’ nonprofit. It read, in part:
I think the Bible is very straightforward and clear on its teaching concerning abortion, gay marriage, homosexual lifestyle, obeying the laws established by a nation and not supporting and harboring those who break the law and come illegally… I also feel the Democrat party’s stance on so many issues is so contrary to the teaching of the Bible and have a hard time with Christians aligning with it.
The letter concluded by requesting the organization discontinue the automatic bank withdrawals, effective within the month. “So far, we haven’t found new sponsors for those kids,” Brown told me.
A few acquaintances stopped reaching out to talk with the Browns, or no longer wanted to spend time together. In one case, the reasoning reached them second-hand, through the telephone lines of community gossip: “I never knew she was a liar.”
More painful still was the need to help her own children process ugly comments they heard from classmates at school. In the late winter, Brown grew more reluctant to leave the house.
One night, in December, Brown decided to go out and do some much-needed shopping. Her list was longer than usual because of her weeks at home, and she began methodically checking items off her list, one at a time. When she reached a corner of the store, she noticed another woman at the opposite end—someone she knew.
When Brown smiled and opened her mouth to say hello, the woman turned heel and walked away. Brown was so stunned that she left her carefully gathered items in the store and drove home without buying anything.
In some ways, Melissa Brown and Jacob Hall are two parts of a whole—the yin and yang of the same faith: one emphasizing compassion, the other, conviction. They read the same Bible and pray to the same God. They’re part of the same community, the community where I grew up—a careful quiet one that sometimes looks askance and wonders—Why have you rocked the boat?
But even as the outside world leaks into Sioux County, there are powerful reminders of the singular, decent humanity of a bygone era. It is easy to make glib characterizations of the county, but, “It’s not one thing,” Reverend Lee told me. “You’ve got to let the mess stand, and ponder it, and resist the hubris to think you can regard it and know it all at once.”
One Saturday in December in the middle of my visit, during a winter storm in Sioux Center, phones rang, passing on news of one cancelled event after another. That morning, a Christmas train looped throughout the Centre Mall, as it does every year—past a Hallmark store, a Pizza Ranch, and a shelf offering free copies of a paper-stapled Today devotional from the Back to God Hour.
A man bent over in the front of the the Centre Mall Express, Engine Number 251. He wore striped overalls and a matching engineer’s hat. Cars clicked over a tiled floor—red car, yellow car, green—until someone hurried over to tell the engineer that he’d better get home before the roads got too ugly.
One of the few places that did remain open was the Fruited Plain Café. As the world outside became a maelstrom of slushy brownish snow, the owner, Laremy De Vries, and two college employees sat inside, taking turns with a single pair of scissors to cut snowflakes out of coffee filters. When I walked in the door, De Vries, with whom I once attended church, said “You’re a Boersma!” He’s right—I used to be.
De Vries’ band was supposed to play that night, but they were reconsidering, given the weather. Still, the cafe kept the lights on for the handful of paying customers.
A man came in and bought a coffee. He had tried to use the drive-through, he said, but the snow was too overwhelming. Better just to come inside. “I want a cinnamon roll,” he said, “but I don’t need a cinnamon roll. My wife’s got some on the counter at home.” He paid for his coffee and walked out the door, his boots leaving little puddles.
Later that afternoon, De Vries put out a Facebook announcement that the cafe would be holding an impromptu potluck that evening: “There’s a blizzard! So come and get snowed in at the FP! We’ll have soup and mulled wine and cider. There will be music beginning at 6ish. And it’s Joseph Bartels’s birthday!”
By 8 p.m, counters were littered with soup tureens and emptied ceramic bowls and breadcrumbs. Children sat in circles in the middle of the floor, playing games and running around a wine-display rack. In the back room, a band was playing. More than two dozen people in the audience, ages eleven to forty, sat in assorted white chairs or leaned against the wall to listen.
A woman came up to the drummer and he stopped to listen as she spoke into his ear. He stood up. “Can someone help my wife dig our car out of the snow?” he shouted over the din. Half the audience got up to follow her out.
Later, a fourteen-year old kid took the drummer’s place.
He was magnificent. His hair, middle-parted and triangular, flipped with the beat. His eyes were glued to the lead guitarist, and when there was a pause in the music, every muscle in his arms seemed to hang, suspended in anticipation and energy and latent motion. When the guitarist turned, the drumsticks came crashing down, and the kid’s hair flipped back and forth, obscuring his face, then revealing it, in a motion-picture slide show of pure elation. A simple wooden cross hung around his neck.