Opinion

How ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ made American religion real

"A Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Productions 

(RNS) Religion experts perennially complain that mass entertainment culture is ignorant about religion and portrays it badly.

But there’s one show they overlook.

For 42 years, Garrison Keillor’s deep, soothing voice brought a slice of Americana into our homes and cars through his popular show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Keillor, who ended his run as host on Saturday (July 2) in an episode taped at the Hollywood Bowl, also brought a healthy dose of religion to the show.

For church people, the stories and songs had a familiar and humorous ring. They also transmitted a bit of education and an accurate portrayal of American Protestantism to the religiously uninitiated.

A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Productions 

“A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Productions

Keillor was reared in Plymouth Brethren churches but attended Protestant mainline churches most of his life. Indeed, he was so immersed in these churches he could critique and satirize them without betraying his own obvious appreciation and devotion.

Best-known for his comedic portrayals of Lutheranism in his native Minnesota, Keillor had a deep understanding of the entire American Christian landscape, from literal-Bible fundamentalism to Dutch Calvinism.

His show, which broadcast mostly from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, is surely the most widely known portrayal of Lutheran cultural strength in the Upper Midwest.

It was one of the only programs to air on NPR member stations in which listeners could hear hymns. Keillor and his musical guests sang hymns throughout the year, often in keeping with the liturgical calendar.

A Prairie Home Companion Host Garrison Keillor, far right, performs the show with Tim Russell, Sue Scott and Fred Newman. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Productions 

“A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor, far right, performs the show with, left to right, Fred Newman, Tim Russell and Sue Scott. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Productions

The fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, which seems as real to me as any imaginary place could possibly be, is well-known for its two churches: a Lutheran one, of course, and a Catholic parish named Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

The Catholics in Lake Wobegon worship with Father Emil and some dedicated German nuns. The Norwegians are Lutheran. The townsfolk seem very much alike, in spite of their different confessional and national heritages. Yet they imagine themselves quite different from one another.

Religious difference in Lake Wobegon serves as a microcosm for Keillor to opine on a great question for Christians and for all Americans: How different are we, really?

Church people, especially mainline Protestants, found something whimsical, comforting and yet very real in Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and its longtime pastor, the Rev. David Ingqvist.

And Keillor masterfully chronicled contemporary challenges and changes in both churches’ traditions through the pastors’ successors, Father Wilmer and Pastor Liz.

A stalwart liberal, Keillor generally resisted the temptation to intertwine religion and politics, both on the show and in his own life. But when religious conservatives dismayed by the leftward tilt of the mainline denominations wonder what makes those pew dwellers tick, Keillor embodies the answer.

He is the consummate churchman of his place and time, a synthesis of his evangelical childhood, his fondness for sacred music and his progressive politics. Even the uneasy tension between Keillor’s traditionalism and his tolerance resonates with generations of liberal Protestants.

It is fitting, then, that President Obama, a fellow traveler of Keillor’s liberal Christianity, called in to the final show.

“One of the reasons I miss driving is that you kept me company,” Obama told Keillor. “’A Prairie Home Companion’ made me feel better and more human.”

I rarely made a point to tune in on Saturday evenings. But if I was in the car driving any distance, I almost always tuned in. As a professional observer of American Christianity, I was frequently struck by the depth of Keillor’s own religious literacy and his admirable skill in transmitting religious culture.

Over four decades, Keillor showed what is good, endearing and enduring about his brand of Protestantism.

Saturday night at the Los Angeles stadium, Keillor and his onstage singers led the Hollywood Bowl in singing the chorus of the great old hymn “We’re Marching to Zion.”

No one but Garrison Keillor could have done such a thing. And it seems likely that no one will again.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

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Jacob Lupfer

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  • Excellent piece! You put into words what I have long thought. The religion part was really the very best of the Lake Woebegone segments. Keillor was indeed a keen observer and I hope he will continue with new contributions now and again. It is a vivid contrast between shrill assertions of the moral superiority of the rough hands of the Heartland like gets documented in Gary Brookins’ comic strip “Pluggers,” which today led Comics critic Josh Fruhlinger “The Comics Curmedgon” to remark “…many people who consider themselves residents of Real America (which is, it goes without saying, a cultural and psychological attitude rather than a geographical location) are just better at everything than other people…” – a smugness never found on PHC except by a minor character of whom the majority of the citizens disapproved.

  • We listened as a family to the Prairie Home Companion for years and we always enjoyed it. We’ll be sad to see him go.

  • As Minnesotan, I know how much Christian white, mostly rural, Lutheran, middle and upper class people liked him. Keillor was skilled at running his radio show and very good with that demographic. For the rest of us? Feelings ranged from “meh,” to “ugh,” because he was very exclusionary.

  • I loved Keillor’s fun of various churches but the fun was never destructive or mean. It taught me to take my own church less seriously. God bless you Garrison!

  • I liked the show but it wasn’t everybody’s kind of humor. My parents have seen every Woody Allen movie, but when A Prairie Home Companion was doing a show up the road from them, they were like “we don’t get it.”

  • Garrison Keillor is one of the two most effective lay “public theologians” in the English-speaking world today, alongside Stephen Colbert.

  • I still remember that one of the suspicions the older generation of Lake Wobegon Lutherans had about Pastor Ingqvist was that he was “soft on Catholicism.” I always thought that such a hilarious — and telling! — microcosm of the path of mainline Protestantism in the late 20th century.

  • Oh yes, conservative Lutherans in the upper midwest had a reflexive aversion to Catholicism that IMHO showed a defective understanding of their own tradition, which is closer to it than most other Protestants in America. I don’t know if they still do. If they got around more, they would find themselves being accused by Southern Baptists, for example, as “just as bad as the Catholics.” In my native Wisconsin, my sense was that Lutheran pastors fresh out of seminary had a much better perspective than they were to find in their typical parishioners and, if they remained idealistic, had to enlighten them slowly and with great patience. In Pastor Ingqvist, Keillor once again showed insight into the reality of the situation. One of the most delightful episodes of News from Lake Wobegon told about Pastor Ingqvist trip abroad as a tourist to Rome and the Vatican, where even he unexpectedly found a great deal to admire.

  • @Kangaroo52:disqus : >”smugness never found on PHC except by a minor character of whom the majority of the citizens disapproved.”

    Thank you for very astute observations! Indeed, Mr. Keillor would explain that an essential part of the Lutheran personality was the humility of “keeping a lid on it” and not regarding oneself as anyone particularly distinguished or superior. So they admonished their children whenever any of them started acting like uppity prima donnas. My family became Episcopalian when I was six years old (where I’d say that it is expected to aspire to distinction but quietly– be self-effacing rather than a show-off). Many of my relatives, however, are Lutherans, and I can verify that this wholesome upbringing prevails.

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