Hillbilly Christianity

The presidential candidacy of one Donald J. Trump has driven members of the coastal elite looking for explanations for his success: who is voting for this guy?

162224This summer, many members of the media thought they found an answer in a book by J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Even the normally staid Economist declared: “You will not read a more important book about America this year.”

Vance, a veteran and a Yale Law graduate, writes of his upbringing in Rust Belt Ohio, the child of transplants from Kentucky, and the family instability, economic crisis, and cultural values he experienced. His conclusion, more or less, is that the problems facing the white working class are not just the result of economic displacement as a result of globalization but also a set of cultural values that don’t nurture the necessary attitude to survive in the world. When he told his father he had was going to Yale Law, his father asked if he had “pretended to be black of liberal.” “This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen,” Vance writes. “We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.” (p. 194)

You can make what you will of that argument. But when I read this book, I was struck by his passing references to Christianity and its role among his hillbilly family. He describes his grandmother, who played the most significant role in his life, as someone who, every night, watched Law & Order, read the Bible, and fell asleep. “The Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers.” But she also hardly ever attended church, “couldn’t say ‘organized religion’ without contempt,” and “saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers.” Her faith was, in his words, “unsophisticated.” Once, when she nearly caused a car accident, scaring Vance, she turned to him and said, ‘We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?” (pp. 85-86)

This theology, Vance concludes, was what he needed to hear: “To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.” (p. 86)

As a pre-teen, Vance became associated with an evangelical church, read the Left Behind books, learns how there is a war on Christmas, discusses whether the Antichrist is already alive, and realizes the world is “lurch[ing] toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah.” (p. 98) Before long, however, he rejects this, realizing in retrospect that this version of Christianity was “sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith.” (p. 99) (There are hints towards the end of the book that he has returned to church as he is writing.)

What I am struck by in this description is the pervasive influence of Christian rhetoric—the Bible, Jesus, Christianity all figure as important ideas in his life—but also the apparent insufficiency of this rhetoric. The Christian answers he and his grandmother have  do not help them cope with the situation they find themselves in. And it’s no wonder: the version of Christianity his grandmother presents strikes me as one version of what I have called in the past “just do it Christianity,” that is, it’s clear what you have to do—work hard, take care of your family—so just do it already. But what if there are no jobs to work at or the jobs that there are don’t pay nearly enough? What if your mother is—like Vance’s—an addict who gives rise to immensely complex feelings in her children?

Meanwhile, when he does attend church he is directed to apparently central issues—the end times—but is offered no convincing resources (theological or otherwise) to cope with the situation of family and societal breakdown in which he finds himself. Gradually—and understandably—he drifts away.

From my privileged, outsider position, it is relatively easy to point this all out (and wish that Vance had written more about Christianity in the book). But it’s much harder to figure out how to respond to it. I can offer a theological critique of it—Christianity is precisely not about our hard work, but the work done by Christ in his death and resurrection; Jesus had some very hard things to say about family relations; Christianity is concerned with our lives here and now because God in Christ comes into the midst of them and transforms them now—but none of this changes the fact that the version of Christianity he describes holds great sway among many people.

Perhaps one of the most concerning things about the state of American Christianity is its segmentation: there are correlations between socio-economic status and both church attendance and the kind of church one belongs to. People like Vance’s grandmother have given up on church—or has the church given up on them?—but they haven’t given up on the rhetoric of Christianity. There are clear opportunities for churches to minister alongside such communities. But if we cannot overcome the vast social distance between our churches and such communities, such ministry will never even begin.

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2 thoughts on “Hillbilly Christianity

  1. Excellent and challenging essay. I will be sharing it with the board of the Global Episcopal Mission Network. Although Jesse addresses circumstances in the USA, there are many parallels around the world, and even within our own Episcopal Church.

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