Boo! No ghosts in WSJ coverage of rural-urban divide

Boo! No ghosts in WSJ coverage of rural-urban divide March 21, 2014

In a 2006 column about my grandparents, I reflected on my rural upbringing:

I close my eyes and I am back in Hayward, a speck on the map in southeastern Missouri’s Bootheel where my Papa and Grandma Ross lived.

I see my grandparents’ wood-paneled station wagon parked outside the two-story house that Papa built himself. Nearby, there’s a boat and fishing poles still dripping wet from a day on the Mississippi River.

I hear the crush of dirt under my feet as my brother, sister, cousins and I play hide-and-seek amid rows and rows of taller-than-us corn stalks. I smell the monster-truck-sized hogs that a neighbor raised in a cesspool of mud and slop.

I taste the ice-cold Grape Nehi soda in a glass bottle that we bought at the tiny store down the street — the same store that sold bologna sandwiches for a quarter and bags of candy for a dime.

Now in my mid-40s, I’ve lived my entire adult life in major metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville and Oklahoma City. I love visiting the country — just as long as I don’t have be away from wifi, shopping malls and my favorite chain restaurants for too long.

Given my personal background, I was fascinated by a front-page Wall Street Journal story today. The in-depth report explores how differences between rural and urban America are an underappreciated factor in the nation’s political split.

Suffice it to say that red state America is much more rural than blue state America:

EL DORADO SPRINGS, Mo. — The owner of the nicest restaurant in town doesn’t serve alcohol, worried that his pastor would be disappointed if he did. Public schools try to avoid scheduling events on Wednesday evenings, when churches hold Bible study. And Democrats here are a rare and lonely breed.

Older, nearly 100% white and overwhelmingly Republican, El Dorado Springs is typical of what is now small-town America. Coffee costs 90 cents at the diner, with free refills. Two hours north and a world away in Kansas City, Starbucks charges twice that, and voters routinely elect Democrats.

There have always been differences between rural and urban America, but they have grown vast and deep, and now are an underappreciated factor in dividing the U.S. political system, say politicians and academicians.

Polling, consumer data and demographic profiles paint a picture of two Americas — not just with differing proclivities but different life experiences. People in cities are more likely to be tethered to a smartphone, buy a foreign-made car and read a fashion magazine. Those in small towns are more likely to go to church, own a gun, support the military and value community ties.

From the very top, the Journal emphasizes religion as a key factor. No ghosts here, folks.

The rural-urban divide is an issue that I explored related to my own faith group — Churches of Christ — in a 2007 story for The Christian Chronicle, so I was pleased to see the Journal tackle it on a wider scale:

Religion remains a dividing line. Urban dwellers are more than three times as likely as rural residents to say religion is “not that important to me,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Nearly 60% of rural residents say homosexual behavior is a sin compared with 40% of city residents, a Pew Research Center poll found last year.

But the Journal doesn’t just approach the issue in broad strokes; it gets up close and personal with the role religion plays in the small town featured:

Given the sagging local economy, residents were excited in 2011 when the El Dorado Mexican Restaurant and Cantina planned to open. But in a town that supports more than 30 churches and one bar, some people objected to the restaurant’s application for a liquor license.

Three local pastors urged the city council to reject the request. “Very little good comes from alcohol,” said Joe Trussell, 54, pastor
of the Church of God (Holiness). The council approved the application on a 3-2 vote.

At the Rusty Jug, a barbecue restaurant decorated like an old-West saloon, owner Todd Leonard suspects beer sales could help his shaky bottom line. But home-brewed root beer remains the strongest drink on tap for diners enjoying the deep-fried ribs and deep-fried potato salad.

Mr. Leonard, age 45, is afraid one of his customers might drive home drunk and kill someone if he served alcohol, he said. He also worries his pastor and neighbors might lose respect for him.

“I am Todd Leonard. I’ve lived here all my life,” he said. ” ‘Todd has always done things right.’ That’s the image I portray.”

Over the summer, Mr. Leonard’s church voted overwhelmingly to spell out opposition to homosexuality in its bylaws. The purpose was to protect the church from any lawsuit if it someday fired someone because they were gay, Mr. Trussell said.

“We’re a church that does embrace people and we love people regardless of their circumstances,” Mr. Trussell said. But, he added, “We believe this behavior goes against the Bible.”

Personally, I wouldn’t mind some home-brewed root beer and deep-fried ribs right about now. But I digress.

This is a worthwhile piece of journalism. Perhaps it will spark some follow-up by religion journalists.

By all means, read it all.

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