The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America: A View from the Inside, with its repeated and eloquent denunciations of “rural, Christian, white America” has gone viral in the past week. When I read it, I got angry. Demonization of “rural, Christian, white America” seems just as bigoted as denouncing Muslims as fanatical jihadists or Jews as world-controlling conspirators.
The “Dark Rigidity” post was written by someone who says he grew up in the ignorant, bigoted, white, Christian, rural America he describes. He originally titled this post On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem,” and published it on his Tumblr blog. Though he writes anonymously, he says he grew up in a small, rural town in Southeastern Idaho.
I also grew up in rural, white, Christian America. Many people I knew while growing up and many people I still know in rural, white, Christian America hold diverse viewpoints. Many are, in varying degrees, thoughtful, flexible, and open to change. Some are neither thoughtful nor open to change – but that’s also true of some people I have known in the cities where I have lived most of my adult life, and of some progressives/ activists/ leftists with whom I identify politically.
“Forsetti’s Justice,” the pseudonymous author denouncing rural, Christian, white America writes:
“Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”
Not really. My swath of rural America includes Catholic, Lutheran (of varying synods), Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and non-denominational Christian churches. The parish I grew up in includes members all along the scale from fundamentalist to seekers and doubters, and all along the political scale as well. Christianity is not identical with religious fundamentalism or with reactionary, racist political views.
“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. …Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.
“The religion in which I was raised taught this.”
More than a hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.” White racism – the “problem of the color line” – remains the problem of 21st century America, and a big part of the problem of the 2016 election. Racism is a white American problem, not a specifically rural or Christian problem.
During the civil rights marches and protests of the 1960s, I sat in a rural, white Christian church and heard sermons about brotherhood, equality, and justice. Back then, I saw rural, white, Christian churches came together to found a local human rights commission in response to a racist move to isolate Mexican-American newcomers in a trailer park outside the city limits. I’m sorry that “Forsetti’s Justice” grew up in a church that taught hate, but that is most definitely not the teaching of most Christian churches, urban or rural.
Racism is not the only problem of the 2016 election. That election was also heavily influenced by lies and propaganda – like the last-minute Wikileaks email smear by the FBI director. Economics and especially the economics of health care played big roles. Health insurance costs increased dramatically in the weeks just before the election. If your health insurance provider pulled out of your area, and the only remaining insurer now charges a $990 monthly premium for one person, with a $6500 annual deductible, blaming Obamacare seems understandable.
Calling someone a racist (or fundamentalist or ignorant) does not change their minds or behaviors. “Foresetti’s Justice” accurately identifies what does work:
“Do you know what does change the beliefs of fundamentalists, sometimes? When something becomes personal. Many a fundamentalist has changed his mind about the LGBT community once his loved ones started coming out of the closet. Many have not. But those who did, did so because their personal experience came in direct conflict with what they believe.”
“Something becoming personal” is not just about a loved one coming out as gay. It’s also about the Hmong neighbor on the farm down the road, the black spouse of a sibling or child, the new immigrants who own the café on main street. “Something becoming personal” can also come from a challenging but respectful conversation with a friend or neighbor whose views are “liberal” or “educated” or “radical.”
Ayan Omar explained in the Washington Post how she has such challenging conversations in rural, white, Christian Minnesota. She describes feeling vulnerable as she begins a panel discussion in front of “more than 100 inquisitive residents” who hand in difficult and sometimes hostile questions. Through conversation, the dynamic changes.
“At the end of every panel, I always feel the room is less eerie. Facial expression change, a light of hope turns on, and people seem more social than the hours before. Some ask me for my email and phone number. I tell them I do this for free and I’d be happy to travel. I am sure my story helps some sleep better at night.”
Such conversations are difficult. It’s much easier and often more satisfying to denounce the racism and ignorance of those who voted for Trump. Neil Gabler, in his eloquent Farewell, America, writes that Trump “has shredded our values.” Yes. He has. He has appealed to the worst in us.
When swastikas appear on running paths and garages in my cities, when a friend’s 10-year-old grandson is called the N-word in his public school, when racists run amok because Trump’s victory has made them feel safe to threaten, attack and hurt people, the chorus of denunciation is absolutely justified.
But denunciation is not enough. We also need to continue grassroots organizing for change. We need conversations that reach beyond the circle of people who agree with us. We need to search for some sliver of common ground where we can begin to talk to people who voted for Trump, to people who have racist beliefs, to people who think privatization of Medicare or a lower minimum wage might be good things.
Demonizing people, ridiculing ignorance, or calling people racists (even when they are) doesn’t change hearts and minds. Changing hearts and minds is ultimately the path to changing votes and policies.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that nonviolent direct action works “to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice.” Such arousal of conscience often requires repeated actions and months and years of struggle.
Direct dialogue with those with whom we disagree, like nonviolent direct action, can arouse individual consciences and change hearts and minds. Neither direct action nor dialogue offers a quick and easy fix. Sometimes dialogue leads first to bitterness or anger. Sometimes hearts and minds change after three or six or seventy encounters – and if your conversation was the second or fifth or sixty-ninth encounter, you may never see the change.
Barbara Kingsolver’s call to action is a call to do everything: to talk, to argue, to mourn, to resist:
“If our Facebook friends post racial or sexist slurs or celebrate assaults on our rights, we don’t just delete them. We tell them why….
“We talk with co-workers and clients, including Trump supporters, about our common frustrations when we lose our safety nets, see friends deported, lose our clean air and water, and all the harm to follow. …
“We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble.”
Although our political leaders have not stopped DAPL, the water protectors hold their ground. Although police still shoot black men and women, Black Lives Matter stays the course. Even though Trump won this election and Republicans took the Minnesota legislature, we must keep on voting and organizing. Even when people do not listen to facts, we must keep telling our truths. Even when we are met with hostility, we must keep trying to talk to everyone people who disagree with us.
Like protests and organizing and voting, those difficult, respectful, personal conversations are a continuing witness that we must make in order to move toward a different, more just future. .
7 responses to “Dialogue, not demonization – for “rural, white Christians”and others”
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Well, his experience was my own. Exactly. Almost as if he reached inside my mind and stole my memories. And I am a Christian. Sometimes the truth hurts.
I do not believe all rural people or all rural Christians fit the stereotype – or that all urban people or all urban Christians are tolerant and progressive. Here’s another perspective that came across my email today – Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet) https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/rethinking-a-monolithic-and-stereotypical-understanding-of-rural-identity-melissa-range-poet/comment-page-1/#comment-17384
Excellent comments. I’m living in the middle of Steve King land, yet I, too, find many different points of view. If I dare dive into conversations here in northwest Iowa, I find that there is much humanity, plenty of eyes on Christ (although many see him as a WASP) and a desire to do right. You are right. We have to do the grass roots thing, be honest and work for the change for which we hope. Reading P.L. Thomas led me here, by the way.
Thanks! P.L. Thomas has so many great insights – his blog is one that I follow regularly (if not quite religiously!)
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Yeah, unfortunately, you make yourself out to be no better than this anonymous Tumblr blogger. Racism wasn’t the problem of the 2016 election. Heck, whether you chose Trump or Clinton, you were still voting for someone who isn’t black. It wasn’t heavily influenced by lies and propaganda. The truly largest influences were two things: party before reason (it happened on both sides) and the neglect of rural America (more on that later). Then there’s the promotion of conspiracy theories. You claim that James Comey smeared Clinton when in fact he was just in the middle of a bad situation. If he hadn’t come forward with his information he would have just been accused of trying to bolster Clinton’s campaign by withholding information the public had a right to know about. It gets even worse with the claim that the Wikileaks dump was straight from Comey, even if only by implication.
Comey did not hand his information over to Wikileaks. I don’t know who gave the emails to Wikileaks but there is absolutely no evidence that Comey did. Furthermore, you aren’t even at least a little bit interested in the contents? They are quite revealing of Clinton’s character.
Ayan Omar most likely mistook racial hostility for class hostility. She’s from the city, and the truth is that it isn’t minorities that the rural folk fear, it’s cities.
See, there’s the thing about Trump voters, they’re demonized. They voted for Trump so they must ignorant, racist, deplorables, and the minorities, women, and LGBTs that voted for him must be traitors to their own race, sex, sexuality, but none of that is true. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/07/17/donald-trump-supporters-republican-nomination-president/87047494/ This should provide some insight into who Trump supporters truly are. Heck, look at Navajo Nation. They support Trump because they’re quite screwed if the coal industry isn’t revitalized. Yes, they are converting to solar, but we don’t know if that will be enough in the long run.
Those swastikas and stuff happening, that would have happened with or without Trump. He’s not the cause, he’s just a convenient excuse. I bet you didn’t even know that the neo-Nazis are writing him off as a Jewish pawn. http://forward.com/news/369257/for-neo-nazis-trump-quickly-falls-from-hero-to-jewish-pawn/ Yes, demonizing and denunciation isn’t the answer, but neither is falling to the same trap as those you despise, even if it’s in a different manner.
You keep treating Trump like he’s the enemy, but he’s not. You don’t like him, fine, but treating the POTUS like they’re the enemy doesn’t lead to anywhere good, just like the neglect of rural America. Speaking of which, that’s ultimately what lead to him becoming the president. He still gets so much support, not because his supporters actually think he’s doing a good job, only a minority think that at most. In truth, to quote a Cracked article, “To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites. ‘Are you assholes listening now?'”
For years, rural America has been given the short end of the stick, and today they are the last safe joke (think characters like Cletus from Simpsons). When Hurricane Katrina hit, it was in the news so much because it hit a city, a culturally significant area, New Orleans, but what it did to rural Mississippi was virtually unheard, and that’s a problem because the land was steamrolled. All the relief effort went to the cities in during the Great Recession. Stuff like this has been going on for years. The cities get all the help while the country is left to fend for itself, but that’s okay since these people are all about being dependent on no one, especially the government, right?
Sadly, the rural needs help now more than ever. The suicide rate among the rural youth is a far deal greater than the urban youth. The rate of rural white suicides and overdoses is skyrocket, to paraphrase the aforementioned Cracked article. Small towns are dependent on manufacturing jobs to the point where they can’t replace them with service jobs. They keep trying to say that their way of life is dying and in return they just get smacked and “corrected.”
You want to know what the funniest things are though? First, that for all of the criticisms about Trump, we cheer guys like him on in pop culture. Tony Stark, Dr. House, Walter White, and more. Second, Trump may very well be the president that Obama wished for. I can’t find the dang article, but it is from a reliable source, and it states that Obama desired a president who is not bound by ideology, among other things. By Trump’s own word, his views are not set in stone. They may take one stance one day, and then a different stance another day.
Despite growing up in a rural area, I have to wonder if city life has changed you to the point where you’re as city as Hollywood. Anywho, here’s the Cracked article if you’re interested. http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/ It’s one of the cases where satire isn’t through the use of humor.