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FIRST-PERSON: SPAM and the SBC, both longtime favorites

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–The last two summers, my father and I have taken road trips north. In 2002, we made a big circle up through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across the Mackinac Bridge, down to Detroit and then back to Chicago. This summer, we ran up to International Falls, stopping at Madison, Duluth and Ely on the way out, and at Bemidji, Minneapolis and Galena on the way back. We ate hot Krispy Kremes at the Mall of America, saw Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” at the Guthrie Theater, reached up to touch the nose of Babe the Blue Ox (a statue, of course), and stood in the middle of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park.

None of this, however, compares with our visit to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. Yes, the Spam Museum. (And I’m not talking about the stuff that clogs your e-mail inbox.)

You have to admire the folks at Hormel. Spam has been an easy target for ridicule over the years, and they’re not taking it anymore. While sophisticates may look down on this pork-shoulder concoction from the heights of their quiche-and-brie-laden tables, ordinary people have gone right on and enjoyed their Spam. And now there is something of a cult following. To use an old expression, Spam is “camp” — it’s cool to identify with something so uncool.

Picking up on (and stimulating) this phenomenon, Hormel has built a state-of-the-art visitors center in southeast Minnesota, near Interstate 90.

There you can see a World War I tableau with GIs “enjoying” Spam, a video rerun of the famous Monty Python restaurant scene (with Vikings chanting “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam”) and a display on the manufacture of Spam (with Tchaikovsky playing in the background).

The gift shop is laden with Spam golf towels, alarm clocks and a hundred other logo-stamped products. (When hearing I was on my way to Austin, my neighbor insisted that I pick him up a Spam T-shirt so that he could wear it to his health club.)

So what does this have to do with religion, besides the suspicion that some people seem to be making an idol of Spam? Well, I hesitate to say it, but my visit to the Spam Museum reminded me of the Southern Baptist Convention in certain ways. Now I’ve got some explaining to do. Let me suggest five similarities:

1. Both are populist; neither is the darling of the West and East Coast elites. Of course, we Southern Baptists can be erudite and cosmopolitan (Hormel has its more “refined” Dinty Moore brand, too), but we’re basically plain folks.

2. Most people don’t know it, but we’ve both meant a lot to some big shots. Nikita Khrushchev credited Spam with saving the Russian army in WWII. General Dwight Eisenhower wrote Hormel a letter of thanks, now on display in the museum. British Prime Minister Thatcher said it was a treat for her family during that war. As for Southern Baptist connections, just consider this list of Washington names who, in various ways, have had SBC ties: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, Mitch McConnell, Dick Gephardt, Glenn Poshard, Newt Gingrich and J.C. Watts. The general populace may not know who we are, but they sure know the folks who have gratefully patronized us.

3. Though both enjoy nationwide distribution, certain regions are particularly enamored with the “product.” Hawaii is gaga over Spam. They even have a special Hawaiian recipe display and book at the museum. And Southern Baptists enjoy overwhelming influence in vast regions of the American South. (Just check out the red region on the Glenmary map at http://www.glenmary.org/grc/RCMS_2000/maps/Largest_Group.jpg).

4. Both feed a lot of people. By 2002, Hormel had sold 6 billion cans of Spam. By 2002, Southern Baptists had grown to more than 16 million congregants, the most of any American Protestant denomination. (Yes, I know and appreciate the purists’ arguments against calling ourselves Protestant, but the name is in the ballpark.)

5. Both have distinguished themselves in war. Spam came into its own in WWII when it was a B-ration and food depots were called “Spam Canyon.” Being predominantly Southerners, Southern Baptists share in the region’s strong tradition of appreciation for and participation in the military. Beyond this, Southern Baptists have distinguished themselves in the cultural and spiritual war against theological liberalism and ethical relativism. You might say, we’re both right salty.

When I got back home, I told some church members about the visit, and one lady was right skeptical of Spam’s virtues. She’d never tasted it and wasn’t sure she wanted to. I hustled to the pantry and brought out a can we’d bought to help me with my Atkins diet. I gave it to her with the same suggestion I make to other believers concerning the Southern Baptist experience: “Try it. You might be surprised.”
Mark Coppenger, at [email protected], is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. His commentaries appear biweekly in the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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