The Ted Nugent Paradox -- Liberals, Small Town America, & Class
This is likely the first and last mention of Ted Nugent in one of my blog posts. I'm not a fan of his music or his politics. That said, my friend Luke Allen wrote a blog post with that title and I'd like to engage it, because Luke has raised some important questions for those of us on the left side of center, especially those of us in the church! The post isn't about Ted Nugent, but about the realities of white rural America and attitudes among white liberals toward what some term red necks or white trash -- often the white working poor.
Luke places himself on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but he grew up in small town Michigan. In recent years he has spent considerable time doing urban and suburban community organizing (I partnered with him and another pastor in launching what became the Metro Coalition of Congregations). Luke has a strong passion for communities like the one he was raised in, even though he lives in the urban/suburban part of southeast Michigan. My experience isn't quite the same as his, but I grew up in a small city in southern Oregon that reflected some of the more conservative values that he identifies.
Here is his concern:
A core tenet of 2015 liberalism is the idea that “the system” is to blame for all of the worst “isms” in the world, particularly racism and sexism. “The System” is decried as evil, as something to be dismantled and railed against. I agree. There is a system put in place by the rich and powerful to maintain the status quo, which they obviously benefit from. I’m not going to get into theory behind this, but I’m with the liberals on it. However, there’s another “ism” that the system perpetuates, and its an “ism” that suburban liberals not only contribute to, but contribute to gleefully while patting themselves on the back. They even get congratulated and rewarded for their contributions to it by other suburban liberals. This “ism”; classism, is almost exclusively directed at the rural working class and working poor; i.e. rednecks, hillbillies, white trash. I.e. my friends and family. Maybe one day we’ll take classism as seriously as we take racism and sexism, but that day’s a long way off.
When President Obama was running for President in 2008 he made an unfortunate reference to those who cling to guns and religion in reference to just this group of people. At one time the Democrats did pretty well with this demographic, but not in recent years. Republicans, who have tended to embrace the business community, have tapped into the angst felt by many in small towns and rural areas who are seeing their "values" being eroded and see the Republicans standing up for these values, including patriotism, guns, and religion. I should note that Klamath Falls, Oregon was well known as a town filled with lots of guns (lots of hunters).
I recommend reading Luke's essay. It's quite enlightening and revealing. Luke is concerned that the same system that has disempowered many persons of color living in urban communities is also disempowering rural/small town white folks, without much concern being taken by white suburban liberals who view them as rednecks and hicks, without understanding that there is a deep malaise present in many of these communities.
What I want to do is offer a theological response.
I think it is worth noting that Jesus came from a small town (Nazareth) in a region (Galilee) that was considered a backwater. Jewish religious life centered on the Temple, well to the south and thus largely out of reach for a typical Galilean. Jesus was blue collar (a tekton). While it has been assumed by most Christians that Jesus was literate, most Galileans of his status were not literate. This may have been one of the reasons why the religious elite was so dismissive of his message. He wasn't properly educated, and besides there were questions about his parentage. Jesus drew to himself the kinds of people that weren't always welcomed by polite society. Indeed, his own Table fellowship scandalized many people of good standing. In other words, he hung around the kinds of people that the educated elite call "red necks." So, Jesus understands the concerns of the working poor. That was his background. He knew of the struggles. He knew the challenges placed before them, especially on a religious level.
One of the few institutions that remain in small communities is the church. These churches are usually small, poor, and probably (though not necessarily) conservative. The members tend be down-to-earth folks. They like to sing the old hymns. They might have a meal after church -- potluck/covered dish. Nothing fancy. I preached at some of these churches in Kansas. These were good people. They were hungry for a word from God. My fear is that these congregations are finding it difficult to attract strong pastoral leadership. For one thing they don't much to offer financially. And sometimes the preachers who have studied at fine divinity schools talk down to them. Many of these churches turn to less educated pastors, in part because this is what they can afford, and also because these ministers seem to better understand them. I must say that I've preached in country churches, but don't feel a call to them. That said, I do believe these are important institutions that are being neglected.
In fact, it is these very communities who would benefit from theologically-sophisticated clergy who can help them connect the biblical story to their own life in a way that might challenge the powers that be that benefit from pitting white against persons of color. Recognizing that the issue isn't necessarily color but class is key. After all, both urban and rural communities often suffer from inadequate schools, access to health care, etc. Perhaps some will feel the call to minister to such communities, bringing with them good news that liberates spiritually, economically, politically, intellectually . . .
Thank you Luke for sharing your story and your passion!