With every lurching brawl that brings America’s Problem Child one short finger closer to the Republican nomination for President of the United States (and that much closer to what looks like a sure and crushing defeat in the general election), one question becomes ever-more salient: who are these people? Who are the roughly one-third of Republican voters seemingly intent on helping a loathsome developer-celebrity-omnihater drive their party right over the cliff’s edge?
It’s a decent question, but one that’s never held much suspense for me. America’s Problem Child voters were the people who filled the pews in my first congregation, in post-industrial central Pennsylvania. Were they wretched? Yes, sometimes. Were they racist? Great googly-moogly, yes, more often than I would have liked.
They were classic working-class whites, “Reagan Democrats,” though some were still Dems when I knew them. Many of them worked industrial, highly-unionized jobs, the kind the economy has been bleeding away for decades.
The thing to know about them—the thing I learned too late, unfortunately—was that every time something changed in their lives, it changed for the worse. And I mean just about every stinking time. These were the people who got screwed over by job offshoring, or by technological advances that always seemed to result in three people doing the work of five. Their town developed entire industries, only to see them leave for greener pastures. Some members of the congregation developed asbestosis from working in aluminum and flooring plants, or other health problems from the demands of their jobs.
Most of the congregation had grown up in a densely-populated, amazingly compact neighborhood on the poor side of town. They had no hesitation about describing parts of it as a “slum,” or saying there was no loss in it being plowed under and redeveloped in the late 1960s. And yet, the migration out of their neighborhood was consistently one of the most difficult changes they had to cope with. Old timers could tell me confidently about who lived in what house on what street, and how their neighborhood was completely different from “Cabbage Hill,” the area all of three or four blocks away where the German Catholics lived. This city—all of two miles square—once supported seven UCC congregations, each with its distinct community, many of whom couldn’t be bothered to visit another sanctuary.
The way they told the story, they’d been forced out of their neighborhood by an influx of black and Puerto Rican migrants (whom they blamed for rising crime rates in the city), and from their new church, which was firebombed, and eventually sold to a Hispanic Catholic congregation. That was the way they told the story, anyway. I never found out exactly how much of this was factual and how much was an embroidered narrative of racial resentment, but they certainly believed it to be true.
The true soul-killer, though, was the loss of their beloved long-term pastor, who resigned suddenly from burnout after years of dedication to social service ministry throughout the city. It left a hole in their faith that nothing could ever quite fill, and cemented their resolve to stamp out change wherever they found it. They were literally not interested in learning to sing a new song. It provoked too much anxiety.
None of this is to excuse their behavior, which was often sour, mean-spirited, or entitled. But I knew where it came from. They thought they had the world on a string: good jobs, a strong community, a successful church. Then all of a sudden, they didn’t have any of it. That was a real psychological burden on them, which unfortunately they often dealt with by lashing out at others.
If you listened carefully below the spite and anger (which was not always easy to do), a worldview began to emerge. They believed in a social order. More important, they believed that if everyone knew their position in that order and stuck to it, the world would work much better. They didn’t hate all black people, or Puerto Ricans. In fact, many of them really did have black or Hispanic friends and neighbors they spoke highly of. But they didn’t have much use for someone who didn’t know which neighborhood they were “supposed” to live in, or for someone who objected to social discrimination. That was stepping out of line, and my people had been taught that the highest values in life were staying in line, keeping your nose to the grindstone and not asking for any favors.
The same was true for gays and lesbians. They all knew who was straight and who wasn’t. But as long as the gay folk were willing to go along with the fiction that they were “roommates,” everything was fine. Anything else would have violated the immutable Way Things Are Supposed To Be, and would have been intolerable. Ditto pastors who wanted them to learn songs from that new hymnal. They really, literally believed there was an objective, unchangeable pecking order in society, and they really, literally, believed that it had God’s blessing on it for the good of humanity. America’s Problem Child would absolutely have been their guy.
Admittedly, the experiences I’m detailing here go back almost twenty years, and reflect even earlier history. Many of the people I knew at this church are dead now. Even the younger ones would be upper-age voters in the Republican coalition today. But I’m willing to guess that the sources of discontent being tapped into aren’t all that different. There are an awful lot of people who carry around with them a mental map of the old social order, and the benefits it was meant to convey to them. When the promises of that order are not fulfilled, they don’t blame it or the idea of orders themselves. They blame the people they perceive as not playing by the rules, whether those be Wall Street executives or undocumented workers. And because they blame rule-breakers, there’s no way to get them to form common cause with others who have been screwed over by the system. Solidarity of the working class across racial lines is an American pipe dream.
This is the fault line America’s Problem Child is able to exploit to his benefit. His entire campaign can be summed up in a single premise: I have a strong enough personality to make people do what they’re supposed to do, and restore the social order.
The American church, of course, had a hand in creating this situation. Even where Christians didn’t embrace a repressive social hierarchy, they were enthusiastic builders of the social order, and all that entailed. My congregation was the hub of its neighborhood, providing education, opportunities to mingle and network, sometimes financial assistance. But that warm embrace all took place in a closed system. As the community dispersed and found new sources of support, the church wasn’t able to expand its vision of who it should serve and why. Like so many congregations, it wound up strangling itself with its commitment to the old social order. These days, it’s only a shell of what it used to be. The kids of the people I knew have mostly wandered away from the church, sensing that it had little to offer them anymore.
In that, they’re like many of the developer-celebrity-omnihater’s supporters, who are generally the least likely to attend church among GOP primary voters. As the church sociologist Nancy Ammerman says, these voters are “alienated and disconnected from everything,” including the church. In her words, “These are the ‘Nones’ we should really be worried about.” She’s not the only one who sees the red flags:
Monthly church attendance by moderately educated whites – defined as those with high school diplomas and maybe some college – has declined to 37 percent from 50 percent, according to the study co-authored by sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. Church attendance by the least educated whites – defined as those lacking high school diplomas – fell to 23 percent from 38 percent.
For these people, church is just another institution they don’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to participate in. They’re too busy working and trying to hold their families together with duct tape. Besides, what can the church offer them, really? On the one hand, it can embrace the new world emerging all around it—but they don’t want that—or it can strive for the return of the old social order, a promise it can’t keep. In a time of rapid social change, the church is struggling to keep up, just like anyone else. It’s really no wonder that some of its members might be seduced by a prophet who offers safety, restoration, and a whole raft of easy answers.
The people who vote for America’s Problem Child are the people let down by our society’s failed promises, including religious promises. In time, the church can learn to re-connect with these people and start to serve them again. We Christians might want to get going on that project, before it’s too late.