Rural America: Is Anyone Listening?
I suppose as the citizens of the United States begin to digest the results of Tuesday's election a lot of us will don the appearance of political pundits. Given the historic upset of the Presidential race there will, no doubt, be an endless flow of commentary, dissection, and analysis. If you're an armchair politician it might prove fascinating if not also a bit entertaining, but if you're looking for a measure of peace and quiet it seems this campaign season will not fade so quickly into silence.
I'm not a political pundit or intellectual scholar. Of course, after last night I've lost confidence in political “science” and the opinions of the experts. Nevertheless, any reflection I might add to the noise may prove to be superficial or, at worst, completely wrong. While I didn't support either of the major candidates I cannot help but think last night was a stinging indictment of—maybe even a victory over—the political, social, and media elite. The mainstream seemed completely unable to comprehend what was happening and, to his credit, NBC's Lester Holt noted several times: “This is because of us.” After hours of wrestling with results the one comment that stuck with me was how rural America was turning out in force for Donald Trump and changing the dynamic of the election. Love it or loathe it rural America spoke loudly last night.
That has really been the amazing phenomenon of Trump. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he lives in an opulent Manhattan townhouse, his office towers fifty-eight stories into the New York City skyline, but rural America has, in many ways, embraced him as one of their own. Something of his unorthodox and shoot from the hip campaign resonated with a majority of rural American's sixty-million people. Hillary and the media tried to accredit this to a shared racism, bigotry, and sexism. While I will not defend Trump I remain unconvinced that this the bond that unites them. Rather, it seems to me, he had an ability to tap into the fear, frustration, anxiety, and hopes of a population that has been marginalized and overlooked by virtually everyone. As one commentator noted, last night was a culture war and rural America won.
In coming months I hope this angle will be explored more and more. Rural America has been suffering for over a hundred years. At the turn of the twentieth century the ideological disparity between it and urban counterparts resulted in a presidential response from Teddy Roosevelt and the Country Life Commission. Agricultural mechanization has destroyed many once small town farming communities in the midwest, and in Appalachia coal mining communities have been equally devastated. Economic recovery from the last decade's recession has not rebounded in these areas the way it has for the city, and poverty rates remain higher. Alcohol abuse and drug use are pandemic, and suicide rates have catapulted to a critical level. While crime rates are higher in the city research has shown that country living is more dangerous and hazardous. All of this reveals a degree of desperation, distress, pain, sadness, and loneliness that elites have been either unwilling or unable to engage.
It was into this environment that Trump entered. As he did so he disassociated himself from the untrustworthy establishment, rejected the narratives of the elite, had no sympathy for the correctness of the culture, ran a near solo campaign, and spoke with a vocabulary unprompted by a teleprompter. The result is that he became a champion for those who have been overlooked. The man and the message reached into the desperation and distress of those whom William Julius Wilson called the “truly disadvantaged.” Rural America has been crying out and Donald Trump responded.
There's something in this for the church. As the economy, social status, and desirability of small town living has evaporated so too has the witness of the church. Long established congregations have boarded up their doors silencing the proclamation of the gospel in those communities. Many denominations have allocated their people, resources, and time to the planting of new churches in the city while neglecting the necessary work of revitalization. And sadly, churches in the countryside burdened by budget, building, and membership woes have slipped into apathy and stagnation. The church must hear the crying out of rural America and respond. But our response cannot be with bombastic rhetoric, empty promises of government policies, or standing on political platforms. At the end of the day those can never deliver the help and relief that is truly needed. The crisis in rural America is a spiritual crisis and we must respond by standing on the platform of the Bible which alone can interpret the needs of fallen humanity, directing those in our communities to the promises of the gospel, and speaking the truth in a love that is matched by mercy. Rural America spoke loudly last night. Are we listening?