Heroin used to be a problem mainly for the big cities. Today it is also ravaging rural communities in the American heartland, a cheap alternative to pain pills and crystal meth. In the white working class, divorce is soaring, marriage rates have been plummeting, and single parents have become the norm. And this demographic, which used to be the heart and soul of evangelical Christianity, has the lowest rates of church attendance. From boarded up small towns to rustbelt cities where the factory has closed down, the white working class is in a state of economic, moral, cultural, and spiritual crisis.
This is chronicled in the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, who grew up in a family plagued by all of these dysfunctions, but whose church-going grandparents pulled him out of the mire.
While churches build mega-congregations in the suburbs and concentrate on trying to reach affluent millennials, the truly unchurched who are arguably in most need of evangelism and spiritual care are often ignored, déclassé as they are.
Terry Mattingly interviews Vance on the religious dimensions of the crisis he documents.
This was one call for water-leak help that the next-door neighbors in Middletown, Ohio, could not ignore.
“The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing – hence, the leaking roof,” noted J.D. Vance, in his “Hillbilly Elegy” memoir about the crisis in America’s working class that shaped his family.
“Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. … This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life.”
Vance was in high school at the time and dramas of this kind kept creating a dark cloud over his life. Many of his questions had moral and religious overtones, especially among people with roots back to the Bible Belt culture of the Kentucky mountains.
“Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man?”, wrote Vance. “Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why didn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter?” And ultimately, “Why were all of these things happening … to my mom?”
Economic woes played a part, he said, but the elegy of hillbilly life involves psychology, morality, culture, shattered communities and families that are broken, or that never formed in the first place. Yes, there are religious issues in that mix.
“It’s a classic chicken and egg problem,” said Vance, reached by telephone. “Which comes first, poverty and economic problems or people making bad moral decisions that wreck marriages and homes? Clearly people – children especially – are caught in a vicious cycle.”
It’s crucial that religious leaders face this crisis, rather than continuing to build their sanctuaries and schools in prosperous areas, he said. After all, problems that plague distressed urban and rural settings will reach many “safe” suburbs – soon.
Certainly, poor blacks have it hard. But African-Americans, with some of the highest rates of church attendance, have the church. They tend to have a community, a culture. These poor whites don’t. Rather, they have lost all of that.
Though Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t really get into politics much, many observers are using it to help explain the rise of Donald Trump, who is strongly supported by working class white people and who channels their resentments and yearnings to “make America”–and them–“great again.”
I know a lot of you pastors are ministering to folks like these. What are your challenges? Do you have any success stories? What’s needed to reach them and give them the help they need?