What the Right Knows About Speaking to Rural White Christians
Why do Democrats lose in rural areas like Dunn County, Wisconsin where I live? I recently reread fellow Dunn County resident Bill Hogseth’s piece in Politico, and he seems to sum it up pretty well. Rural areas have been hit hard economically by policies enacted by both Democrats and Republicans over that last period, policies which have funneled wealth away from regular rural people and small towns. We have then been ignored and gaslighted by politicians, until a leader came along and provided a story where rural people were taken seriously. This is a simple story which can be summed up in four letters: M.A.G.A. Hogseth thinks if the Dems could actually make the lives of rural people better, then perhaps they could be also taken seriously. I think Bill is partially right, but we also need to look at how deeply intertwined the stories Republicans are telling rural people are with contemporary Christianity.
I know something about Christianity. Bill begins his piece by noting that he is a 6th generation native of rural Dunn county. He knows rural people, and he has witnessed the economic decline of the region. I myself come from a family of Lutheran ministers. My brother, my father, his father, and his father before him all serve or served the Lutheran church as pastors. Although I currently do not live a deeply religious life, I was literally raised in the church. What I see about the success of the Republican story for rural people is that it speaks directly to the lived emotional experience of most Christians who I know. Specifically, it speaks to their identity as white rural Christians. I think that any story the Dems want rural people to believe will have to appeal to their fundamental Christian values.
Bill focused on economic issues and stayed away from talking about race or religion. He seems to be saying that poverty and economic stagnation don’t care what race or religion you are, or where you live. If the Dems or Republicans could enact policies that would bring up the fortunes of all Americans, then race and religion could be made irrelevant. However, in the current political climate, gridlock and big money in politics have meant that neither party has been capable of making meaningful economic improvements in rural people’s lives. So to win elections, both parties have needed to use emotional stories that focus on identity, while giving lip service to economic issues. Bill is right that the Republicans win rural America because they are telling us a compelling story; the Dems don’t have a competing story for rural America, and they certainly don’t have one where rural white Christian people can see themselves as the primary protagonists.
Republicans have been much better at speaking to rural white Christians than Democrats. Like Bill, I don’t want to say that Republicans are convincing rural people to vote against their own interests. That is paternalistic and assumes we know what their interests are. Rather I can say that the Republicans have been good at appealing to the interests of white people who identify as Christians. This is made easier because the Democrats have a “big tent” party. Any story the Dems tell needs to appeal to all of the various elements of their coalition, including, but not limited to Black people, feminists, progressives, Latinx people, union workers, environmentalists, LGBTQ advocates, academics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and more. By contrast, the Republicans can win by winning a majority of white Christian voters; so they can tell a story that is tailored to their single constituency.
A part of the Republican story is the underlying idea that the economy is a zero-sum game. If we were to raise the economic condition of Blacks, Latinx, or Indigenous people, then that would mean that someone else would have to lose. The big bogeyman in the zero-sum gain world is the idea of reparations for slavery: where the government will come and take some of your hard-earned money and give it to undeserving people. While they are at it, if you don’t watch out, the government will take your guns and maybe your land. This is an effective story, because it is still a simple story that makes sense. With this story, the Republicans also don’t actually have to do anything to earn your vote. In fact, baked into the story is the idea that by shrinking government, they are actually doing more for people, by preventing the unjust redistribution of wealth. This story also succeeds because it is reinforced by its connection to elements of the typical Christian narrative. It resonates with the way Christians like myself were raised.
Christians believe in the power of God’s blessing. We are raised to believe that God is good, and kind, and all powerful. God is watching us and cares for us and wants us to be good people. We are taught to love one another and not to sin. God wants us to do good deeds and sacrifice and make the world a better place. A key piece of this godly life is expectation that we will be “saved,” and when we die, we will have eternal life. Jesus did this for us, through making the ultimate sacrifice of his life. God loves us and sent Jesus to us. Jesus showed us the way through his acts of compassion and love. We needed Jesus to show us the way because humans are by nature sinful and unclean.
Different Christian sects differ on how we are to be saved from sin. Some say we are saved by acts, and other sects, like my Lutherans, believe that we are saved by the grace of God. For Lutherans, we need to believe and be baptised in order to benefit from God’s grace. It sounds simple, but to truly believe in God means you should follow the teachings of the Bible, because if you believe in something but don’t actually follow it, then you don’t really believe it. Lutherans love to study the Bible, and as a youth, I read it and heard it recited many times. One of the best parts of going to church is the pastor’s sermon, where they take a text from the Bible and interpret it using stories from real life (probably why I like writing long essays). Those sermons are even better (or more embarrassing) when the pastor is your dad, and the stories are taken from your family’s life. If you believe and are baptised, then God will look upon you with favor. This is why Christians are so into gratitude. We see the blessings of God and we are thankful.
I should also stress that Christianity is not just about doing things in order to get into Heaven. Following the teachings of the Bible is also a way to live a good life on Earth. Contained within the teachings of Jesus are love, forgiveness, compassion, charity, and justice, which are all keys to living a successful and happy life on Earth. The words of the golden rule that Christians love are “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That about sums it up. Jesus loved children and fought for the common people. He welcomed sinners with open arms, and we are to do the same. To live a Christian life is to live a life of generosity and integrity.
The Christian life provides rewards on Earth and in Heaven, and also has ways to help people when times are hard. A Christian response to hard times is to have faith. By having faith that God is good, and that everything happens for a reason, we can weather hard times. Christians also look out for others, and we realize that we are the servants of God, and God cares for people through us. Faith is important. One of the great stories of the Old Testament is about Job, a man of God who was tested by the Devil. God allowed the Devil to take everything from Job, and because Job kept his faith, God restored it all to him. So God tests us and asks to keep the faith. But God rewards those who are faithful and good.
While the Christian stories generally guide people to lead lives that improve the lives of people around them, there are many ways that Christianity has been mis-used to reinforce powerful people over the ages. It is an old story. One of the first was Emperor Constantine who chose Christianity to be the new state religion for Rome in 312 CE. He probably chose Christianity partly because it is monotheistic. People in monotheistic religions are used to looking to a single Lord, and honoring authority is part of it. Monotheism has been good for the concentration of power. These early Romans helped to decide which books would be chosen for the Bible, and their choices helped reinforce the power of the church. The power of the state has been intertwined with Christianity ever since Constantine.
There are elements within Christianity that make it susceptible to being used by powerful people for their own ends. First, Christianity’s foundational document, the Bible, is big and diverse and some part of it can be used to justify just about anything. Second, the concept of a good, loving God who cares about us can be interpreted into imagining that individuals who do not seem to be cared for by God must have done something to be cursed by God. If God blesses the righteous, then God can also choose to punish the unfaithful. Third, we have been taught that to follow God’s way is good, and to stray from God’s path is evil. We are taught that there is evil at work in the world, and we are to guard against it in ourselves and in the world. Finally, the way that God acts in the world is through sending prophets, leaders, and saviors. Christians are ready to listen to a leader who claims to be guided by God.
The Bible is big and diverse and was written by many different people at many different times for many different purposes. Christians can look at different parts of the Bible and they can use the words to suit their beliefs. A famous example is how slaveholders used parts of the Bible to justify slavery, while essentially the whole book of Exodus puts God on the side of liberty. Or how a few lines in Leviticus are used to say that homosexuality is against the laws of God, when we have the entire story of Jesus being about love and forgiveness. Or when the origin stories in Genesis are taken as literal fact and used to justify patriarchy and to suppress science. I don’t want to get into a debate over scripture, but that is my point, Christians can and do have debates about scripture. The debates are rooted in the earnest desire to live a good and righteous life, and Churches have split many times over what outsiders might consider small differences in interpretation.
For the last 50 plus years, Republicans have successfully spoken to rural white Christians in ways Democrats have failed to do. They have spoken to the part of Christianity that wants to live a righteous life in accordance with how they interpret scripture. Republicans have successfully painted feminists, LGBTQ folks, and sometimes scientists as living lives counter to scripture. The signature issue that Republicans have staked out in this category is their opposition to legal abortion. This also extends to other places where “traditional Christian values” have been in the news in recent years, including Republican opposition to LGBTQ rights, opposition to teaching the science of evolution, opposition to women stepping out of traditional gender roles, and more. This message appeals directly to rural white Christians. It also peels off conservative Christian voters from traditional Democratic voting blocs, like Black men and Latinx people. Following scripture is important. So is gratitude.
Christian people routinely say that they have been blessed by God. When we sit down to eat, we thank God for putting food on the table. On the face of it, this is good. Gratitude is good. However, if God blesses us, then the corollary could also be true — those who are not well off could be seen as not being good enough to receive God’s blessing. They might be worthy of charity. Christians have a long history of viewing a person’s position in society as being the will of God. This comes out as a belief that society is organized as a meritocracy. Those who are in a low position only have themselves to blame. They are either lazy, weak, or otherwise undeserving of God’s blessing. I provide a link below to Lou Holtz’s speech about the importance of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and how the Republicans encourage that and how Democrats want to give resources to undeserving people. Lou’s speech is persuasive, because it speaks to the obvious value of hard work.
The idea of meritocracy plays particularly well with rural Christians. Those of us who work with our hands or grow crops know that hard work and intelligence are literally rewarded. If we work hard to plant, fertilize, and weed a crop, we will have a harvest in proportion to our work. In agriculture, you can judge a person’s effort by their output. A beautiful, prosperous farm is the result of work ethic and know-how. Christians have long given thanks to God for their harvests, and there is some justification for that. The Bible gives us instructions on how to live, and following those instructions can also help farmers succeed. The Bible speaks of planting seeds in good soil and tending the flock.
The problem is that while meritocracy has functioned for many sectors in America, and especially has seemed strong in rural white America, systemic oppression has affected other sectors since the beginning. If one looks at individual failure as a sign of individual defects rather than being tied to systemic oppression, then one is ready to believe Lou Holtz that there are people who are undeserving of being helped. The Democrats will need to come up with a story to counter the meritocracy story, if they want to reach rural Christians.
It sort of makes sense that a wealthy person leads the Republican party, because wealth is a possible signifier of blessing. It also makes sense that Republicans have tried to remove the US from helping other countries and make America “first.” This is zero-sum thinking. In a time of limited resources, we need to give to people who deserve it first. Through this lens, rural people might look at cities as places where there are people who only want government handouts. Republican talking points have mentioned cities with socialist mayors and blue cities who want too much federal aid. They want rural people to see this as an unjust use of our hard-earned tax dollars. This is actually a mischaracterization of the flow of wealth in this country. Rural people generally benefit more per capita on federal spending and resources, but no matter, there is still this idea that cities suck up the resources from the country. This gets complicated by the fact that urbans areas have a higher percentage of non-white people, and race can become a factor.
Climate change is an issue where Christianity has been mis-used by Republicans. On first thought, Christians should be against climate change. In our creation stories we are told that we were given the Earth and that we should care for it as stewards. Stewardship is a strong Christian concept of care for land, animals, and community. Yet Republicans have encouraged Christians to ignore the science and deny the truth of climate change. This may have something to do with how Christians have traditionally viewed extreme weather. The words for extreme weather are “acts of God.” Much like with Job, God might send extreme weather either to test us or as a punishment. For climate scientists to say that extreme weather events are caused by humans is a type of hubris. Bad weather events have always been acts of God, so climate change science undermines God’s power.
Likewise, there is an intersection with the idea of meritocracy and health outcomes for people. If God blesses a person, then they will be healthy. Therefore disease could be seen as a withdrawal of God’s blessing. The AIDS/HIV pandemic was seen by many Christians as God’s punishment of certain groups of people. With the ongoing COVID pandemic, Christians might view it as another act of God. If it is God’s will, you might be less likely to intervene with mask mandates, business closures, or sending vaccines to other countries. The fact that climate change and COVID are affecting poor people and people of color worse would not necessarily be seen as racism by rural white Christians. These people who are affected are worthy of charity, but not systemic structural change.
The idea of good versus evil is useful for Republicans in telling a story that appeals to Christians. Binary thinking limits the potential for compromise and nuanced thinking, and when you are fighting for something important, you want people to stand up for what you think is right. You are either with us or against us. Leaders have a long history of using Christianity to get people to think of their opponents as evil. There are many examples throughout history: Jews have been considered evil. Scientists too. People of other races or religions. Pagans. Women healers have been branded as evil witches. LGBTQ people. Communists. Atheists. And, of course, Christians have a long history of judging other Christian sects as heretical and therefore evil. Wars have been fought over this stuff. Republicans have been better at getting their voters to see the issues as a fight between good and evil. A problem is that if you see your political opponent as an agent of evil, it makes it hard to understand their sides of things or back down. You double down on your guy.
We Christians are waiting for a savior. As a child, I originally thought that God wrote the bible. It is the literal word of God, or if not, then his chosen people wrote it. In the stories, miracles are important as signifiers of who was chosen. There was a time of miracles when the Bible was written, and God spoke directly through those people. The best of these people was Jesus, who was himself a miracle, God made man. We Christians have been waiting since then for more messengers and miracles. When a leader comes forward in a time of crisis and tells people he was sent by God, people are ready to follow him. If that leader is a charismatic preacher type, then all the better.
Christians are taught to pray and listen for the voice of God, who will guide us in a choice of vocation and right action. Our faith leaders describe their service as a “calling,” and we expect our righteous leaders to be guided by the hand of God. When we have a leader who presents themself as a savior, we are ready to follow. Rural white Christians have been having a hard time. Bill Hogseth’s piece accurately describes the economic decline that has settled into rural Wisconsin and other places. We could use a hero. The Republican message of “Make America Great Again” offers hope. We have a savior in the leader of the party, who is charismatic and promises miracles. This fits with what Christians are expecting.
So we have a Republican party who has looked out at rural white Christian America and told us a story that we are ready to hear, using our shared language and beliefs to tell the story. Republicans have told us that we have the right beliefs about key issues and the Democrats do not follow scripture. Republicans have told us that we work hard and we deserve to be blessed by God, and that the Democrats want to take our resources from us and give them to people who God has not blessed. Republicans have told us that in an ongoing war of good versus evil, they are on the good side and Democrats are on the side of evil. And then Republicans gave us a charismatic savior in the form of the former President. Of course, we love the Republican story. It was made for us.
I don’t think Republican voters have been duped into voting against their interests. I think they chose the party that best represents their interests and beliefs. I think Democrats do have the potential to win back rural Christian voters, but they need to speak directly to them with a story that is both emotionally resonant and consistent with their faith.
What can the Democrats do to win back white rural Christians? Jesus wasn’t a Republican, and Republicans should not be able to speak uncontested to all Christians. On the face of it, the Democrats should have just as good of a claim. Jesus spoke up for the poor and the oppressed. Jesus cast the money changers out of the temple. Jesus spoke truth to power and said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. There are many more places in the gospel that speak of tolerance and forgiveness and love than of intolerance and vengeance. However, the Democrats haven’t deliberately sought to overtly use Christian language and beliefs, probably because their voting coalition depends on non-Christians and lapsed Christians like myself. Democrats also can’t speak to white rural Christians directly and only address their concerns, because that would risk alienating the other pieces of their big tent coalition.
What makes Democrats strong is their big tent. It also opens them up to attacks. Even though Obama and Biden are probably much better Christians than our 45th President, the big tent means they are not immune from attack. Sometimes Republicans go after the strength of a person by staining them with something from the big tent. An example of this is when G W Bush was able to undermine John Kerry, a Veteran, with the Swift Boat ads. Or if the Dems support Black Lives Matter and racial justice, then when BLM protests are hijacked by vandals and arsonists, Republicans can paint all Dems as against “Law and Order.” If the Dems support economic equality, then when self-described Marxists in the Occupy movement call for radical redistribution of wealth, then Republicans can call all Dems “radical socialists.” If the Dems want to stop climate change or have sensible gun laws, then the Republicans can charge them with wanting to take away trucks and guns. The big tent means that Republicans can attack any member under the tent for anything done or said by anyone else under the tent, even those who are “tent adjacent,” and the Republicans can use language in these attacks that appeals directly to their white Christian rural base. They can attempt to invoke fear in rural voters, which can be a strong motivator.
The Dems need something that can counter these attacks. The Republicans are vulnerable. Republicans have been very good at leveraging differences to make emotional attacks on Democrats. They have thrived when in the opposition. They are very good at saying no. They do something John Green described as “negative integration” in his Crash Course European History series that I recently watched (link below). With negative integration, groups define themselves by what they are not and actively exclude those elements. The use of negative messaging is a great way to rile up emotions, but it has not proven effective at providing good governance. When Republicans have been in power, they have consistently driven up the deficit, brought about financial crises, brought the US into costly wars, mismanaged public assets, destroyed the environment, and given huge breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations.
Here are some ideas that the Democrats could do to win back white rural Christian voters:
We need to appeal to positive emotions in much the same way the Republicans have appealed to negative emotions. We need to practice “positive integration.”
We need to pay attention to Bernie and Elizabeth Warren when they talk about policies that improve the living conditions for all Americans. We need to question unrestrained capitalism and make the oligarchs into the bad guys.
We need to undermine zero-sum thinking. With creativity and the reining in of obscene wealth, we can make lives better for everybody.
We need to be just as good at telling stories that appeal to Christian values as the Republicans, while at the same time making sure those stories do not undermine marginalized groups. We need emotional stories of rural people who have been helped. We need stories that describe and undermine systemic oppression and racism. Those stories can resonate for Christians. The Bible and our religious traditions are full of stories of stewardship, compassion, understanding, self-sacrifice, and love.
I think when Bill Hogseth originally wrote his piece for Politico, he probably deliberately stayed away from religion. I waded into it. It is like two different visions of Christianity are up against each other, one that plays on fears and one that looks for hope. I choose to believe that rural white Christians on the whole are guided by love, compassion, and tolerance. It is an act of faith.