The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America: A View from the Inside, with its repeated and eloquent denunciations of “rural, Christian, white America” has gone viral in the past week. When I read it, I got angry. Demonization of “rural, Christian, white America” seems just as bigoted as denouncing Muslims as fanatical jihadists or Jews as world-controlling conspirators.
I also grew up in rural, white, Christian America. Many people I knew while growing up and many people I still know in rural, white, Christian America hold diverse viewpoints. Many are, in varying degrees, thoughtful, flexible, and open to change. Some are neither thoughtful nor open to change – but that’s also true of some people I have known in the cities where I have lived most of my adult life, and of some progressives/ activists/ leftists with whom I identify politically.
“Forsetti’s Justice,” the pseudonymous author denouncing rural, Christian, white America writes:
“Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”
Not really. My swath of rural America includes Catholic, Lutheran (of varying synods), Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and non-denominational Christian churches. The parish I grew up in includes members all along the scale from fundamentalist to seekers and doubters, and all along the political scale as well. Christianity is not identical with religious fundamentalism or with reactionary, racist political views.
“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. …Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.
“The religion in which I was raised taught this.”
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More than a hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.” White racism – the “problem of the color line” – remains the problem of 21st century America, and a big part of the problem of the 2016 election. Racism is a white American problem, not a specifically rural or Christian problem.
During the civil rights marches and protests of the 1960s, I sat in a rural, white Christian church and heard sermons about brotherhood, equality, and justice. Back then, I saw rural, white, Christian churches came together to found a local human rights commission in response to a racist move to isolate Mexican-American newcomers in a trailer park outside the city limits. I’m sorry that “Forsetti’s Justice” grew up in a church that taught hate, but that is most definitely not the teaching of most Christian churches, urban or rural.
Racism is not the only problem of the 2016 election. That election was also heavily influenced by lies and propaganda – like the last-minute Wikileaks email smear by the FBI director. Economics and especially the economics of health care played big roles. Health insurance costs increased dramatically in the weeks just before the election. If your health insurance provider pulled out of your area, and the only remaining insurer now charges a $990 monthly premium for one person, with a $6500 annual deductible, blaming Obamacare seems understandable.
Calling someone a racist (or fundamentalist or ignorant) does not change their minds or behaviors. “Foresetti’s Justice” accurately identifies what does work:
“Do you know what does change the beliefs of fundamentalists, sometimes? When something becomes personal. Many a fundamentalist has changed his mind about the LGBT community once his loved ones started coming out of the closet. Many have not. But those who did, did so because their personal experience came in direct conflict with what they believe.”
“Something becoming personal” is not just about a loved one coming out as gay. It’s also about the Hmong neighbor on the farm down the road, the black spouse of a sibling or child, the new immigrants who own the café on main street. “Something becoming personal” can also come from a challenging but respectful conversation with a friend or neighbor whose views are “liberal” or “educated” or “radical.”
Ayan Omar explained in the Washington Post how she has such challenging conversations in rural, white, Christian Minnesota. She describes feeling vulnerable as she begins a panel discussion in front of “more than 100 inquisitive residents” who hand in difficult and sometimes hostile questions. Through conversation, the dynamic changes.
“At the end of every panel, I always feel the room is less eerie. Facial expression change, a light of hope turns on, and people seem more social than the hours before. Some ask me for my email and phone number. I tell them I do this for free and I’d be happy to travel. I am sure my story helps some sleep better at night.”
Such conversations are difficult. It’s much easier and often more satisfying to denounce the racism and ignorance of those who voted for Trump. Neil Gabler, in his eloquent Farewell, America, writes that Trump “has shredded our values.” Yes. He has. He has appealed to the worst in us.
When swastikas appear on running paths and garages in my cities, when a friend’s 10-year-old grandson is called the N-word in his public school, when racists run amok because Trump’s victory has made them feel safe to threaten, attack and hurt people, the chorus of denunciation is absolutely justified.
But denunciation is not enough. We also need to continue grassroots organizing for change. We need conversations that reach beyond the circle of people who agree with us. We need to search for some sliver of common ground where we can begin to talk to people who voted for Trump, to people who have racist beliefs, to people who think privatization of Medicare or a lower minimum wage might be good things.
Demonizing people, ridiculing ignorance, or calling people racists (even when they are) doesn’t change hearts and minds. Changing hearts and minds is ultimately the path to changing votes and policies.
Direct dialogue with those with whom we disagree, like nonviolent direct action, can arouse individual consciences and change hearts and minds. Neither direct action nor dialogue offers a quick and easy fix. Sometimes dialogue leads first to bitterness or anger. Sometimes hearts and minds change after three or six or seventy encounters – and if your conversation was the second or fifth or sixty-ninth encounter, you may never see the change.
“If our Facebook friends post racial or sexist slurs or celebrate assaults on our rights, we don’t just delete them. We tell them why….
“We talk with co-workers and clients, including Trump supporters, about our common frustrations when we lose our safety nets, see friends deported, lose our clean air and water, and all the harm to follow. …
“We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble.”
Although our political leaders have not stopped DAPL, the water protectors hold their ground. Although police still shoot black men and women, Black Lives Matter stays the course. Even though Trump won this election and Republicans took the Minnesota legislature, we must keep on voting and organizing. Even when people do not listen to facts, we must keep telling our truths. Even when we are met with hostility, we must keep trying to talk to everyone people who disagree with us.
Like protests and organizing and voting, those difficult, respectful, personal conversations are a continuing witness that we must make in order to move toward a different, more just future.
Mary Turck is a writer, editor, and blogger. She is also the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG and a recovering attorney.