Elections, justice and the church in the rural-urban divide

November 2nd, 2020

After the 2016 election, the national conversation turned toward the motivations of rural voters. It became common knowledge that rural voters were the ones who elected Donald Trump. The rural-urban divide seemed more like a chasm. 

In the church world, I noticed a particular rift occurring, echoing the larger cultural shift. There was a rift between the progressive pastors sent to more conservative rural congregations, who disavowed the politics of their congregants. There was a rift between the pastors of larger progressive urban churches and their rural counterparts. In one meeting, one progressive tall-steeple clergy colleague encouraged defunding rural programs in the Annual Conference, because, “Why should we continue to support churches that don’t fight for justice?”

These arguments cite the same literature. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is used by both progressives and conservatives to highlight a self-destructive culture in Appalachia. Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland offers a glaring look at how white rural communities vote against their self-interest. 

The problem, of course, is that these pieces of literature are not reflective of the entirety of rural America. Vance’s book is about a specific family in a specific community, viewed through his tinted political lens. While Metzl’s argument can be compelling, it is wrongheaded to assume that rural America is monolithically white. And, rural America is not steeped in economic decline, as the national conversation assumes it to be. 

The broader assumption that rural America handed Donald Trump the election in 2016 is also not entirely accurate. A cursory glance at the 2016 exit polls shows that Trump would not have won without wealthy suburbanites. 

As I write this, the outcome of the 2020 election is anyone’s guess. One of my hopes is that, regardless of the outcome, we can avoid some of the cliched approaches that perpetuated a rural-urban divide last time around. Such a divide harms the church’s witness in these communities and prevents the church from engaging in meaningful and transformative ministry.

I hope that denominational leaders can see rural communities with more realism, understanding the ideological, economic and racial diversity within them. In my home state of North Carolina, The United Methodist Church boasts more than 1,800 congregations. Only 124 of those are predominantly African American. Nearly 75% of these churches are in the western part of the state, while the seven counties that have a majority African American population are located in rural northeastern North Carolina. There are historical reasons for that divergence, steeped in a history of decisions based on racism. How can we realistically talk about racial justice if we ignore the diversity of rural communities and the history of these communities? 

I hope that church leaders — both clergy and laity — can recognize the complexity of challenges facing rural spaces. Rural communities are currently bearing the brunt of new COVID-19 infections, straining an already stretched health care system. Meanwhile, a lack of broadband infrastructure forces families to choose between remote learning they can’t easily access or risk exposure in the classroom. Rural churches are stepping in to provide internet access in their parking lots and vacant classroom spaces, but the problem persists. How can we talk about strengthening communities if we can’t understand the multifaceted challenges they face?

I hope that pastors coming from urban and suburban communities can take time to learn the rhythms and language of their particular rural context. Depending on how you define “rural,” you might be describing between 20% and 50% of the population, yet we speak about rural communities in inaccurate generalized terms: white, poor, declining, conservative. How can we advocate for reconciliation if we are not taking time to learn the subtleties of language, the habits and culture that have formed a place? 

And, I hope that church leaders can avoid stigmatizing an entire subsection of people based upon their geography. I often hear that rural churches are not paying their fair share toward denominational funding, and so they should receive less support. Or, that promising clergy are quickly moved away, where they can do “real ministry” in “stronger churches.” In The United Methodist Church, rural churches pay less in apportionments because they are typically smaller. But, while my county might have factories that manufacture car parts for Jeeps and Fiats, the executives of those companies are not located here. The wealth doesn’t stay here. The plant managers and executives live and commute from the suburbs of Nashville, an hour to the north. And, as I mentioned earlier, the 2016 election would not have been possible without the support of both rural communities and wealthy suburbanites. How can we talk about economic justice if we are not willing to explore our own ecclesial economy? 

After 2016, I watched as my progressive clergy friends laid their anxieties onto their parishioners. I hear my colleagues talk about how, after that election, they hope to never have to serve rural churches again. There’s nothing surprising about any of this — it is an echo of the same national conversation we’ve been having for four years. 

But as the results of this year’s elections come in, I hope we can change the conversation. There are serious issues of justice that need to be addressed, but if we’re going to talk about racial and economic justice or improving health care and education, it does no good to cast the blame onto our rural communities and the congregations within them. 

I’m not naïve enough to believe that the societal rural-urban divide will close after 2020. But I’m optimistic enough to believe that such a chasm need not be present in the church as it has been for the last four years, a witness to the wider world. If we’re going to seriously work for justice, nothing else will suffice. 

This, after all, is the work of the gospel. 

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