The Shame of Rural America: The Heartlands Interview with Robert Wuthnow Concludes, 3 of 3

In the last part of my interview with Princeton sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, we talked about rural churches.  In this segment we pull back the lens and look at shame, among other things…

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Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

You say in the book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, that part of your effort is to explain to other liberal elites that rural America is not crazy; why are we not crazy?

Well, what I have argued and what I found from people I talked to is that there’s a tremendous amount of pragmatic realism in rural America, just as there is elsewhere in suburban and urban America. So, everything is so politicized these days, (I mean how can we not help to say that on today of all days [the day of the Kavanaugh hearings]?), and then that impression of rural America is reinforced, and has been since the 2016 election, by, on the one hand, polls. (We’ve had less than 10% difference in voting in political alignment and make a huge deal out of it and say, “Well, rural America votes this way and urban America votes the other way,” which is only true relatively speaking.)

Then, on the other hand, it’s also reinforced by journalists. The best journalists, the best newspapers, venture out there to Iowa or Mississippi or wherever it might be and talk to people. They give a human dimension to the story, but it’s all about the politics still. So the impression any reader comes away with is that people just spend all their time thinking about politics, which, of course, is not the case for any of us. Sure, politics is important and, since we have campaigns that seem to start as soon as the last election is over, it’s hard not to focus on politics and then it just filters down into divisions within the church.

But on a day-to-day basis, people in rural America are thinking about their jobs, their families, whether their kids are getting a good education or not, whether someone is getting medical care that needs it or not, whether, if they’re in an agricultural area, the crop prices are good or not and what the yields are going to be—all these practical issues.

On top of that, (and this is my argument about moral communities which you captured well in your book review), is the reality that community matters too. People in rural America aren’t just totally self-interested, self-serving narcissists by any means. It matters to them how the community is faring.

So even if they happen to be doing ok individually, if the community’s struggling, if the grocery store that’s been there for years is going out of business, and if the people are having to travel 30 miles to get to work or their job at Walmart or whatever, and then, especially, if the school is closing or the school is doing bad and the kids aren’t able to get as good an education as they want, or the church that has been there for generations and they’ve supported it and their ancestors are buried in the cemetery and all of a sudden the church doesn’t stay open anymore, that bothers people.

That’s not necessarily, in a lot of cases, because of anything going on politically, and it’s usually not something that can be rectified politically, but it does make people angry. And if they feel that politics are making things worse, or politicians are supposed to be doing some things that would help and aren’t, or if they feel that politics is entirely governed by people in  big cities who don’t care about them and understand them, then it’s easy for them to vent political frustration on the politicians that they don’t like.

Right. I think you also captured really well in the book how often that it’s sometimes turned on themselves. You talk about teen pregnancy and saying that, far from being moral wags, a lot of folks will blame themselves for not shielding their children from the culture outside or for not raising them the right way. I don’t think the word comes up too much in the book, but is shame a part of this story, too?

Shame is used, and guilt is, and those are exacerbated by living in a small town where everybody is visible to everybody else, or at least they feel that way. So if it’s their son or daughter who’s gotten into trouble because of sex or alcohol or drugs or whatever they feel that everybody knows and everybody’s talking about it. In larger research we certainly found examples of people who quit going to church because they felt that the church was going to make them feel embarrassed and ashamed and either they quit going to church entirely or they started going to church 50 miles away so they didn’t have to face the family that they thought were critical of them.

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Robert Wuthnow

That’s an indication on the one hand of the moral responsibility that people feel. They want their kids to grow up and to be good citizens and, if they’re Christians, to be good Christians, do the right thing, be honest, take care of their families. But they know it’s difficult and sometimes that’s a reason why they want to stay in a small town because they feel the temptations are actually quite a bit less there than would be the case in bigger cities. In other instances they know that there are all of those temptations, especially drugs or pornography or whatever it may be, in small towns, too. That worries them and they sometimes try to shore up their own sense of what is right by then talking about the problems that they see in the wider culture because of the internet and television and all those things.

One thought on “The Shame of Rural America: The Heartlands Interview with Robert Wuthnow Concludes, 3 of 3

  1. Pingback: What About the Methodists?: Robert Wuthnow talks churches, 2 of 3 | Heartlands

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