I was reading an article in the New Yorker today on the white working class in America and how they are falling further and further behind economically and socially. If you haven’t read it, I would urge folks to read George Packer’s essay, “Poor, White and Republican.” Packer gives a good description of these folks and what has become their slow, descent into hell:
F.D.R. called him “the forgotten man,” but that was long ago. By 1972, he was a member of the silent majority and had become a Democrat for Nixon (he wore a hard hat with an American-flag sticker). 1980 produced the Reagan Democrat (this time he came from Macomb County, Michigan, and was discovered by the pollster Stan Greenberg). By 1994 he had curdled into the Angry White Male (he elected the Gingrich Congress). In 2008, he was simply the working-class white—by then he was no longer forgotten, and no longer a Democrat of any kind; he was a member of the much-analyzed Republican base. The television godfather of the type, of course, is Archie Bunker, but you can also trace his lineage more darkly through the string of hard-bitten blue-collar movies that begins with “Joe” (Peter Boyle, 1970), goes on to “Falling Down” (Michael Douglas, 1993), “Gran Torino” (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and, in a rural context, “Winter’s Bone” (2010). He’s a descendant of the thirties Everyman played by Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, except that in the intervening decades he lost his idealism and grew surly, if not violent, consumed with a hatred of hippies, immigrants, blacks, government, and, finally, himself.
The white working class is getting some more attention because of the release of Charles Murray’s book “Falling Apart.” As I read this article, I started to wonder about mainline churches and how welcoming they would be to the white working class. My guess is that most of these folks wouldn’t feel that welcome in mainline churches. In fact, these folks are more and more dropping out of churches as well
The thing is, I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much. I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure. I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them. The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well. As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of. As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description. How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it. A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes. We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.
You probably are wondering why a black, gay guy is so interested in white working class people. It’s a good question of which I have no good answer. Maybe it’s because I grew up working class and there was always an uneasy tension between working class blacks and working class whites. Maybe it’s that coming from Michigan, which has gone through so much as the economy change, you are more sensitive of those who lose good paying jobs and are trying pick up the pieces after the auto plant closed.
While blacks have always relied on the church during challenging times, for whatever reason, working class whites don’t have the church to lean on in hard times. Why is that?
As Packer notes, the loss of jobs has led to a moral collapse among this group. He notes:
The white working-class has suffered a moral collapse caused in part by the sorting of society into rich and poor, with the traditional virtues surviving only among the former—not by an economic battering at the hands of globalization, technology, and corporate power. Inequality is a natural state, and people at the bottom of society should either resign themselves to their fate, or else revive themselves through a moral and spiritual reawakening (likely inspired by their betters) that will allow them to rise above the lousy hand dealt them by their brain power.Visit most towns or rural areas where factories are boarded up and all the economic life is confined to strip malls, and you have to acknowledge the force of Murray’s picture. Rampant drug use, high dropout rates, out-of-wedlock births, epidemic obesity, every other working-age person on disability—it’s true even though Charles Murray says it’s true. And the predictable left-right argument over causes and solutions doesn’t help. Is it disappearing jobs, or disappearing values? This isn’t an analytical choice I find very useful. Jobs and values are intertwined: when one starts to go, the other is likely to go with it, and the circle becomes truly vicious. A textile factory moves south of the border, and a town loses its mainstay of employment. Former textile workers scurry to find fast-food and retail positions. The move from blue-collar to service work is brutal, and over time some employees lose the will to stick it out in a hateful job. Their children do even worse. Soon enough there are two or three generations of one family on government help, and kids grow up without a model of the work ethic. When a technology plant opens in the area (with a fifth the number of jobs as the textile factory), few locals are remotely qualified to work there. It’s a dismally familiar story—but is it a story of jobs or values? The obvious answer is both, which is why no one’s five-point solutions or three-word slogan is convincing.
There are policy answers to what’s going on here, but there are also spiritual issues going on here. We should be reading this and wondering how we can give them a word of hope? How to do we let them know that God loves them and cares about them? How does the church reach out and help them? How do we stop talking about the poor or the down and out and actually get to know them in all their complexity?
I don’t know what is the answer here, but I do think we in the mainline church need to find ways to know these people and welcome them into our churches warts and all. I think it might be what God would want us to do.