Thursday, March 23, 2017

America's great divide. . .

I grew up in an age in which rural America was the heartland and the divide between the country and the city was narrower -- both in perspective and in values.  It was certainly not perfect but there was less distance between the urban dwellers and those in small towns and on farms across the land.  Today we see that distance more clearly and we feel it.  Comments from former President Obama about the anger, religion, and guns of the rural Americans and the almost unanimous disdain from the media and liberal urban elite to the election of President Trump are telling, indeed.

The once familiar TV shows of Andy Griffith, Mayberry RFD, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and the like both focused on the difference between the village and the city and celebrated the triumph of rural common sense, friendship, values over the urban counterpart.  The Westerns also dominated the TV screens (The Big Valley, Virginian, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke).  At some point things changed.  The humor and story of the urban and rural conflict gave way to disdain.  In 1970 CBS ditched its whole lineup of country based shows in favor of an edgier and more biting social commentary (think All in the Family).  As far off as those days were, many of us long for the days when it was a friendly rivalry and when the values and perspectives were more similar than dissimilar.

Whether the media orchestrated this shift or merely followed the lead of opinion is less significant than how it has all played out.  If you look at maps of the 2016 election results, the great divide between rural and urban has turned into voting blocks as one group has the countryside locked up and another a hold on urban areas.  Working class people and working class values are pitted against the educated and cultural elite -- in evidence so profoundly in the Golden Globe speech of Meryl Streep.

This great gulf between rural and urban America has taken on deep religious significance.  Christians and their values are very deeply aligned with the rural and small towns of America and the secular and skeptical urban America is not only opposed to this but finds it harder and harder to understand this part of America.  The end result is that we have more than a war of words but real battle for supremacy and even survival.

Let me speak personally.  When I grew up in small town, rural Nebraska, my parents paid attention to the weather in New York City and watched the news from the saltwater coasts as intently as they news from the town next door.  They knew the geography and something of the culture of areas far removed from the local towns and farmlands.  When I moved to Long Island, most folks had no clue where Nebraska even was and some asked me about the Native Americans as if the frontier battles of old were still be played out in the West.  But they did not necessarily disdain what they did not know.  Now I am not so sure.  There are embittered folks in the heartlands as well as the coast lands but there is more than bitterness in the coasts -- even downright fear and disdain of country ideas, ideals, values, and faith.

My own denomination moved from a largely rural church body prior to World War II to a more suburban and urban church from the 1950s on.  That transformation has also left us with somewhat the same kind of urban and rural divide -- parishes from the saltwater coasts seem distinctly different from the parishes in the Midwest.  This has created some issues for us as a church and we still deal with the differences and the distinctions.  I wonder what the future will hold -- both for the national divide and its effect on our church body.  I fear that this will not only not be reconciled but that the gulf is being encouraged by an activitist media and the educated and cultural elites.  And for their part, the country folks seem more than happy to see the salt water cities wash away into the sea.  In any case, it is not good.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

I especially agree with your intuitive point about "the media orchestrating this shift" in values. I would add Hollywood and Academia as well. The collective efforts of the media, Hollywood, and Academia set out to shape the culture and move it away from Christian based thinking. What we see today did not happen overnight, but it was part of the progressive program of transforming a nation into a pagan and secular civilization, shedding things like morals and decency along the way. Evidently, they are succeeding.

Carl Vehse said...

And the quietism of Missouri Synod Lutherans had nothing to do with it.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Carl, I hesitate to place substantial blame on the Synod, as it has remained more consistent in upholding the faith than many American liberal denominations. Also, denominations like the Presbyterians and Episcopalians splintered into liberal and conservative camps, just as we have had similar issues which resulted in the formation of ELCA. Once the genie of secular humanism was released from the bottle, primarily through progressive public education, it perverted and poisoned the atmosphere to the extent it cannot be corrected. People have their own minds and ideas, and often resist the plain virtues and teachings of Holy Writ, being pleased to reject the truth and hold to the lies of the worldly mindset. The Synod could not force others to reject the popular values preferred by the surrounding culture than one can convince a determined worldling to see the Grace of God and the salvation of the soul as needful for all of humanity. However, it is true that the LCMS should be more forceful in evangelistic outreach, and we have lost many opportunities over the years due to an ambivalence found in pastor and congregation alike. In that are right to say there has been too much "quietism."

James Kellerman said...

Pastor Peters, I agree with your lament about the growing urban/rural divide, but the LCMS was never quite as rural as you (or the typical LCMS'er) thinks. At the dawn of the 20th century, back when the country was far more rural than urban, 5% of the LCMS membership resided in Chicago alone. If you started adding up the people in Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the scores of other sizable cities found in the quadrilateral formed by Minneapolis, St.Louis, Baltimore, and New York City, you quickly realize just how urban we were. Not all lived in the largest cities, to be sure, but even much smaller cities like Elgin, Illinois weren't rural in feel back then.

Of course, we had plenty of rural congregations. They tended to be much smaller than their urban counterparts, and thus one might get the impression that we had far more people out in the country than in the big cities. But it would take a lot of seven-point rural parishes to match a single 5,000 member church in Chicago (and there were at least two such churches in Chicago in 1900--and several that numbered well over 2,500 members).

What changed after World War II wasn't a growing URBANization, but a growing SUBURBANization in the Synod, accompanied by the transplanting of its members in a more southerly and westward direction. With the exception of a number of African-American Lutherans going from the rural south to big northern cities, if LCMS folks hadn't been in the city before World War II, they were unlikely to go there after the war. Instead they and their city cousins headed for the hills of suburbia.

Pastor Peters said...


I agree with what you wrote but it does not so much matter whether or not the membership lived in predominantly urban or suburban areas, the numbers of congregations was decidedly rural and this is the point I was trying to make.