It’s not often that you read a religion story in the Seattle Times arts and entertainment section, but on Tuesday, there appeared this feature on about a pair of local artists — they are self-identified as “Patriotic Christians” — who put out “tracts” satirizing President Donald Trump.
Which raises some questions. What if a group was distributing tracts making fun of someone else, ie former President Barack Obama or “crooked Hillary”? Would it be a cute political joke still or would they be racist or sexist screeds?
Is it safe to only mock someone like Trump — and his supporters, of course — but no one else? And should a story of this kind include people who are offended by these products?
The article is clever, I do admit.
Little Dickie Glitz was born rich. His parents gave him lots of stuff, but he was never satisfied and always hollered for more. His parents were lax in the manners department, so Dickie earned a reputation as the loud, spoiled neighborhood brat. The other kids didn’t like to play with Dickie — every time he started losing a game, he stormed away, yelling: “I quit! This game is rigged!”
These habits continued into adulthood, and Dickie became a rich, arrogant loudmouth who made a deal with a devilish-looking guy (who bore a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin) and somehow got elected President of the United States.
That’s the basic narrative arc of “I’m Rich!,” a roughly 3-by-5-inch comic-book tract printed on cheap, newspaper-grade paper and lightly sprinkled with gallows-humor wit and relevant Bible verses: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24), “Everyone who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5), “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness” (Luke 12:15).
“I’m Rich!” and its companion tract (“Good Morning Amerika”) were created and published by an enigmatic group called Patriotic Christians for a Better America (PCBA), who have been anonymous — until now. (Its national headquarters is in a cozy house in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
As the story goes on, I learn some facts about the artists and see examples of their work.
But here is a very important journalism issue: Readers are never told, or shown, what sort of Christianity they follow, much less how they are “patriotic Christians.”
Despite their mysterious origins, PCBA tracts have made their way around the country.
Russell Clark, a professional tree climber and trimmer for older, wealthy clients in Florida (most, he says, are Republicans) leaves copies at bus stops, inside newspaper boxes and on bathroom counters in restaurants and bars. Susan Squier, a professor emerita at Penn State University, has been driving around red counties in Pennsylvania, surreptitiously scattering them at gas stations and Home Depot stores. Liz Paz, a retired schoolteacher and principal who is originally from Colombia, but now lives in Arizona, has handed out tracts at community meetings.
Anyone seen these?
In January 2017, right around the time of President Trump’s inauguration, a group of Seattle friends (an artist, a doctor, the principal of a private elementary school, a few others — who grew up in a variety of faith backgrounds) got together for a dinner party. Everyone was miserable.
“It was just people sitting around feeling broken,” Barry Wright, the principal, said. The reality of Trump’s new presidency and concern about worst-case scenarios (which could change the lives of their friends, students and patients, of immigrants, Muslims and whomever else was vulnerable to Trump supporters’ most extreme and least charitable impulses) hung over the table like a ghoul. “It was just shock and worry,” Wright said, “asking ourselves: ‘What should we do?'”
“I don’t even like thinking about how I felt then,” said Kathryn Rathke, the artist. “It really was kind of hysterical, the panic.” Among them, everybody in the group felt like they’d exhausted their options to resist the rise of President Trump: volunteering, donating, protesting, networking.
Then inspiration struck: Chick tracts. Why not write and draw a parody of Chick-tract-style cartoons, but with a twist? Instead of the scare-’em-straight evangelical Christianity of the originals, they could make wry but serious cartoons about a different kind of wayward soul, a sorta-kinda Trump-ish character, then circulate them around the country.
Not many reporters know what Chick tracts are, these days, so at least this writer is well informed. I haven’t seen one in ages, so was amazed to learn they are still around.
For those unfamiliar with Chick tracts, a quick primer: In the 1960s, an evangelical Christian named Jack Chick started making and circulating pocket-size cartoons for distribution wherever potential sinners lingered: libraries, bus stops, train stations, college campuses. The tracts (which often featured graphic, gruesome tortures in hell and on Earth) took aim at anyone who didn’t fit Chick’s mid-20th-century, fundamentalist Christian mold: gay people, marijuana smokers, teens who played Dungeons & Dragons, kids who went trick-or-treating on Halloween, Muslims, Mormons. (One tract, titled “The Death Cookie,” claims the Catholic sacrament of communion was invented by Satan.)
According to its 2019 sales catalog, Chick Publications has sold more than 900 million tracts since its start in 1961. The No. 1 best-seller, “This Was Your Life” (in which an angel takes a man’s soul to watch a movie version of his life, then tosses him into a lake of fire), has been translated into 119 languages, including Burmese, Low German, and various versions of Sotho and Hmong.
Naturally, there’s been some pushback from those who feel that only Trump-trashing believers can expect to get a fair shake in the media.
This group also doesn’t seem to have a website, a Facebook page, nor information on how to order them.
Moreover, if you check with the Chick tract folks themselves, apparently they’ve got a “Trump is the Anti-Christ” cartoon out. Read about that here. And there’s a Trump parody tract (by someone else) here. Friend and foe alike agree the 45th president is a cartoonish character.
Anyway, I wish the writer had, after including the “Christian angle” of this story, plumbed the depths a bit more. We learn some of the occupations of the small group backing the tracts but the others remain anonymous. And, is this a moneymaker? It must be, if they’re having as much success as the article alleges.
Sadly, I couldn’t find one of these tracts, which is why I ran a photo of the main artist, Kathryn Rathke. The only way you can order these things is through an email.
So we finish this article not knowing much more about the originators of these tracts than when we began. I have no problems with a clever piece. I do think some more content should have been offered alongside.