Every election year in America is interesting, but 2016 is going to be one for the history books. When real estate mogul Donald Trump started his campaign last summer I was among many that thought it was a joke. When he started portraying Mexican immigrants as rapists, it seemed his campaign would sputter early. I thought the same thing after he slandered Senator John McCain for getting captured during Vietnam. Or when said sexist things about Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly. Or…
You get the idea. Things that would have sunk more traditional candidates have only made Trump stronger, not weaker. And many of us are left scratching our heads as to why this man has such strong followers, especially after he has said horrible things such as deporting all 11 million people here illegaly or banning Muslims from entering our country. Who in the world would support a man that is nothing more than a nationalist that peddles soft core bigotry?
It’s a question many are wondering. Among churches, there are many that scratch their heads as to why anyone on God’s green earth someone would support someone like Trump. Evangelical leaders are especially troubled . Some go as far as to think that those evangelicals who support Trump aren’t really evangelicals at all.
But since I run with mainline/progressive Protestants, I am interested in what they think. The answer is pretty simple: they think Trumpistas are ignorant racists. Here is what Tim Suttle has to say:
CNN recently conducted 150 interviews at Trump rallies in 31 cities. The results paint a picture of supporters who are largely white, angry, scared, and united by intense dislike for President Obama. Much of the outrage clusters around issues of race. Hatred toward Obama stems from the sense that he cares more about blacks than whites, and that he is too friendly toward Muslims (along with the Trump-birthers who still think he’s a secret Muslim). Supporters outside Trump rallies chant, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. All the Muslims have to go!” Backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests fuel many other Trump supporters. Frustration with underemployment or lack of opportunity has been directed toward hispanic immigrants. There is a sense that, as one supporter claimed, “No one’s looking out for the white guy anymore.”
Now Suttle doesn’t say that they are racists and that’s that. He does think they are focused on the wrong enemies.
But mainline and evangelical leaders do tend to lump Trump voters into one box, the box that says these voters are racist, xenophobic, uneducated rabble.
I don’t doubt that a number of Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes. Anyone who can’t see that is blind. But that said, I wonder if those of us in the mainline churches are missing something. Are we not seeing why they might be attracted to Trump? And are we not seeing how we have treated these people and in some way has pushed them to choose a reality TV show star?
Trump has exposed something that we Americans are loathe to talk about and that is class. As hard as it is to talk about race in America, we like to pretend class doesn’t exist. But the fact is,it does and it shows itself in how middle and upper income Americans look at low income Americans, especially those who are poor and white. The well educated in American society tend to view the working class, especially the white working class with contempt. British writer Clive Crook has noticed that coming from class-conscious Britain didn’t prepare him for the way the working class is treated in America:
I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.
When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.
But this attitude isn’t just found among the elite Washington set. It is found especially among the mainline/progressive churches.
For all the talk of inclusion, most mainline churches tend to reflect the culture they were born in, that is the middle and upper classes. The people who attend local and national meetings tend to be well-educated folk. When we plant churches, we tend to go after white hipsters and(maybe) persons of color. Working class whites? Forget about it.
Four years ago, I shared that for all the justice and peace talk, mainline Christians had a class problem:
I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much. I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure. I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them. The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well. As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of. As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description. How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it. A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes. We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.
Which is maybe why Trump has such a following among the white working class. They don’t like him because of his positions on say health care, but that he that he stands up to the upper class. Crook notes:
…contrary to reports, the Trump supporters I’m talking about aren’t fools. They aren’t racists either. They don’t think much would change one way or the other if Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can’t be repaired and little’s at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that’s where Trump’s defects come in: They’re what make him such an effective messenger.
The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.
Crook ends up saying that the vote for Trump is a protest over the lack of respect.
Of course, there is also an economic reason for the rise of Trump. Thomas Edsall and Charles Murray have some good analysis at what has happened in the economy that gave us the Donald. What happened in my hometown of Flint, Michigan is something that happened around the country: we had a massive deindustrialization starting in the 70s that made life challenging for the working class. African Americans and other minorities were hit hard. However, even during hard times, these groups had one institution that was there for them: the church. For the white working class, there is nothing to rely on, not even the church. In both its evangelical and mainline forms, American Protestantism has abandoned the white working class.
An example of this took place in my hometown. I started to notice something happening in Flint, starting in the 1980s and continuing to the present day. One by one, many of the mainline churches in the city started closing. Part of this is because of the shrinking of the city and the shrinking of mainline denominations. For African Americans in this majority black city, there was always the black church to help them in the challenging times. That’s still the case today. Was that the case with working class whites. I don’t know. I know that evangelical churches have stayed either in the city limits or nearby, but when it came to the church that prided itself in social justice and caring for the least of these, mainline churches were nowhere to be found. Conservative political writer Yuval Levin wrote what is happening in this new lower class in a 2012 article:
The formation of the “new lower class,” meanwhile, amounts to nothing short of a cataclysmic cultural disintegration. Among this group, the family is falling apart—with marriage rates for people between ages 30 and 50 plummeting from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent today, and only 37 percent of children living with both of their biological parents. Religious practice and belief are sharply declining: About 4 percent of Americans in Murray’s lower class reported having no religion in the early 1970s; today the proportion is greater than 20 percent. Industriousness is falling, especially among men: The share of lower-class households with a full-time worker dropped from 81 percent to 60 percent in the past half-century, while the number of men claiming to be disabled and unable to work has grown five-fold. Lawfulness has plummeted: Crime rates among this group exploded between 1960 and 1990, and although they have since declined some, much of that decline appears to have been caused by far higher incarceration rates, which hardly constitutes a sustainable solution.
Long story short, when things are going bad for you, when the upper class looks at you as nothing more than stupid racists, when institutions like the church are not to be found, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that these folk go for a guy that tells them that it’s the fault of Mexicans or Muslims for their plight.
As the 2016 campaign rolls on, I think that mainline churches really need to look at themselves. How are they reaching out to the down and out? We are good in talking about being with the poor, but the hard reality is that the mainline churches are geared towards the “creative class,” and not towards all people. (Don’t get me started on how mainline churches are really only interested in tokenism among people of color.) We have to ask ourselves if we truly believe these people are people that God loves and seek ways to reach them, not just politically, but spiritually, giving them churches that can help them weather the storms of life. What the white working class needs is the same thing poor African Americans need: dignity.
But this means being real about how mainline churches have given lip service to the poor and working class while making sure their upper class compatroits are doing well. It means setting up churches in areas where the Tex Sample’s “hard living” folk live.
Much of the 2016 election year for Christians has been about either denouncing Donald Trump or outright frustration that Christians, evangelicals especially, are so enamoured with a candidate that is authoritarian and borderline racist. There has been much written about denouncing Trump and to some extent denouncing his supporters. There is an important case to be made for that. Trump is too dangerous to be allowed to occupy the highest office in the land. But I also know that Jesus hung out with a rough crowd that didn’t set will with religious leaders. If Jesus can do this, then it might mean we have to as well, to reach out and offer hope- not to accept their prejudices, but to meet them where they are and start knitting them into the larger whole.
I end with something I wrote in 2012 about this topic. It sill carries relevance today:
There are policy answers to what’s going on here, but there are also spiritual issues going on here. We should be reading this and wondering how we can give them a word of hope? How to do we let them know that God loves them and cares about them? How does the church reach out and help them? How do we stop talking about the poor or the down and out and actually get to know them in all their complexity?
I don’t know what is the answer here, but I do think we in the mainline church need to find ways to know these people and welcome them into our churches warts and all. I think it might be what God would want us to do.