BOOK REVIEW: Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War

Liberals have ignored rednecks at their own peril, according to the author, and now they’re paying the price in votes and social programs—as more and more working-class people turn Republican, often against their own self-interests.

Deer Hunting with Jesus will no doubt be required reading in college sociology classes for years to come. Not only is it an insider’s view of an oft-neglected population, it also sparkles with wit and humor. Take, for example, author Joe Bageant’s take on modern identity. He first recalls the days when a youngster had to scrap out a name for himself on the playground, then wryly concludes:

How they did it without today’s props is a mystery. No nerd duds, preppy shirts, gangbanger shorts, or even a cell phone.

How do you identify yourself as a hipster, a soccer mom, a redneck?

The difficulties of self-expression having been neatly eliminated through standardization, adult yokels and urban sophisticates can choose from a preselected array of possible selves based solely on what they like to eat, see, wear, hear, and drive. …They sound like a motley bunch, but they share one modern characteristic: Not one of them made up his or her identity from scratch.

Humor aside, I’d like to encourage my fellow animal protection advocates to seriously consider checking out this book. Although the author idealizes hunting and isn’t focused on animal issues, Deer Hunting with Jesus still contains much useful material for the rural-based activist. Time and time again, animal advocates fail to recognize regional differences in attitudes about animal welfare, and not tailor their message accordingly. Bageant invites readers into his harsh world where a .22 is called a “cat rifle” and much recreation and tradition revolves around taking animals’ lives. It’s not always pretty–but it is literally our own backyards, and if we wish to better the lot of animals beyond the small progressive patches, it’s essential for us to understand it.

“The people” doing our hardest work and fighting our wars are not altruistic and probably never were. They don’t give a rat’s bunghole about the world’s poor or the planet or animals or anything else. Not really. “The people” like cheap gas. They like chasing post-Thanksgiving Day Christmas sales.

It’s not difficult to find animal advocates saying remarkably naive things such as “Everybody supports harsh penalties for dog and cat abuse,” or “Everybody supports more humane handling of farm animals.” Sorry, but no, they don’t. The author hits the nail on the head when he writes:

When social conscience extends no farther than ourselves, our friends, and our family, then Darfur or secret American prisons abroad are not a problem.

And so it goes for animal issues as well. And that’s the main reason most of your friends from high school don’t get worked up when you post stories about animal cruelty on your Facebook wall. But antipathy’s common. Outright sadism is another thing, and redneck culture has that, too, in spades:

We rural and small-town mutt people seem by an early age to have a special capacity for cruelty. For instance, as a child did you ever put a firecracker up a toad’s ass and light it? George W. Bush and [the author] have that in common.

As many authors have documented previously, the mentalities of both animal abuse and human violence go hand-in-hand, and perhaps some of the most striking examples are on display, if unwittingly, in this book.

[W]e may safely assume that some of my tribe are stifling the screams of captives in America’s secret “black box” prisons across the planet. On a more mundane scale, they might be (as seen in CBS footage) kicking and stomping hundreds of chickens to death every day at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Moorefield, West Virginia…where Lyndie [England] once worked. Or consider the image of Matthew Shepard’s body twisted on that Wyoming fence. …We, the mutt-faced working-class sons and daughters of the Scots-Irish republic, born to kick your chicken breast meat to death for you in the darkest, most dismal corners of our great land…[England] quit her job at the infamous Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant because “people were doing bad things. Management didn’t care.” Just like the people at Abu Ghraib were doing bad things. Management didn’t care there either.

Same violence, different victims. Bageant traces the brawling nature of the American redneck to his European ancestors, the Scots-Irish Borderer people. They brought their bloodied and bruised way of looking at the world to America, where

As brutish labor coarsens the pleasures of its practitioners, common pastimes, particularly along the expanding edge of frontier America, included bear baiting, cockfights, eye-gouging contests…

Not that the rest of America doesn’t ever join in on the antics, even just as spectators.

Lots of Americans don’t seem to mind having a pack of young Scots-Irish American pit bulls savage some fly-blown desert nation, or run loose in the White House for that matter, so long as they are our pit bulls…The problem is this: Pit bulls always escalate the fight and keep at it until the last dog is dead, leaving the gentler breeds to clean up the blood spilled.

Interesting terminology there, when one considers the original Staffordshire bull (AKA pit bull) terrier was created circa the 17th century by English and Scots-Irish seeking the ultimate canine gladiator for their fighting “sports.” Is it surprising that the worst elements of redneck culture have become so identifiably tied with irresponsible pit bull ownership, and all of the lovely things that entails?

Borderer culture can also help explain why rural and suburban people often have a seemingly shoot-oneself-in-the-foot attitude to environmentalism.

And to this day we can be counted on for bellicose objection to such government oppression as health care for the poor, equitable taxation of the rich (no kind of tax can be good to a Borderer), fair labor practices, seat belts, and environmental laws.

As can religion. In the eyes of what the author calls “hard-core End Times fundamentalists,”

There is no need to worry about the environment because we are not going to need this earth much longer. … Pure Rapturist doctrine…calls for scrapping environmental protection of all kinds, because there will be no need for this planet once the Rapture occurs.

Strip mines and kicked chickens and chained pit bulls aside, as the books title indicates, the most visible way of interacting with the natural world in rural and semi-rural America is hunting. Just as many of his compatriots, the author romanticizes hunting and looks back upon his experiences fondly. He opens his chapter on guns and hunting in America with this memory of his father shooting three deer in rapid succession back in 1957:

The first deer, the buck, was thrown sideways and went down at a running roll. The two does did approximately the same thing; the second one would later be found after an hour of tracking the blood on fences and grass. We had just witnessed an amazing feat still talked about in the Bageant family all these years after my father’s death.

Killing three large animals in a matter of milliseconds is indeed quite a feat of shooting. But let’s look past that and see what really happened here. A terrified and wounded animal suffered for an hour before finally being dispatched. Imagine the word “dogs” instead of “deer” in the above paragraph. Would such an act be a thing to celebrate? Yet deer are just as capable of experiencing pain as dogs are.

And though I have not hunted since 1986, the sight of a fine old shotgun still rouses my heart. … To nonhunters, the image conjured by the title of this book might seem absurd…But [it] also captures something that moves me about the people I grew up with—the intersection between hunting and religion in their lives.

Animal advocates would be smart to take note of just how ingrained in emotion and tradition hunting is. They should never refer to themselves as “anti-hunters,” because as an “anti-hunter,” it’s not this you’re opposed to, but rather Uncle Bob and Granddad. Promotion of non-consumptive outdoor recreation such as camping and hiking, as well as target and skeet shooting, are also ways to hang onto traditional elements of hunting without causing suffering and death.

For as many things as the mostly-insightful author gets right, he also trips up occasionally, such as his take on people who are opposed to hunting.
Unfortunately, utter lack of knowledge and experience doesn’t keep nonhunting urban liberals from believing they know what’s best for everyone else—or simply laughing at what they do not understand.

Animal advocates know this simple characterization is false—we count among our ranks former hunters and rural dwellers whose first-hand experience with hunting caused them to question and oppose the sport. (Myself—lifelong West Virginia resident, living in a liberal, vegetarian, gun-owning household.) Heck, hunting opponents aren’t even all liberals.

And while I agree that anyone who criticizes deer hunting in between bites of a Big Mac is a raging hypocrite without a leg to stand on, that still does not negate the suffering animals experience when pierced with bullets or arrows. It’s not a manner of “nannying,” it’s a matter of considering the sentient individual at the business end of the weapon, the one who has absolutely no say in the matter. I would suggest taking a step back from the war of words over hunting and looking at the activity from the point of view of the animal bleeding out from the arrow lodged in her chest. Where is her story?

The author perhaps unwittingly summed it up later in the book when offering up a quote from an ex-Democrat country boy.

”Without values life just gets cheaper by the day because we no longer value anyone else’s interests but our own.”


(Review originally appeared at

9 Comments (+add yours?)

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