“Social class in America isn’t just about money.” So says J.D. Vance in the midst of his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Raised in southwestern Ohio, but grown with close ties to nearby Kentucky, Vance tells a story that is more than just his own “rags-to-riches” type of narrative. His tale encompasses a breadth of white rural experience that conditions not just the hillbillies of Appalachia but actually many poor rural whites throughout the country. Around the time of the election of Pres. Donald J. Trump, Vance’s memoir was often pointed at as a description of the ailment that manifested in political symptoms.
If social class, neatly construed, is not, as Vance suggests, about money, then what is it about? Vance struggles with this throughout his book. He goes to the Marines, a big state university, an Ivy League law school, upper-crust elite work, and all the time he still feels like a “hillbilly.” For him there’s a sense of pride in that identification; but there is also a sense of humiliation. For some reason, he stresses near the end of the book, he just cannot escape the pressures of rural poverty and the power it wields over his life, even in the midst of relative success.
I have wondered about this problem of social class too. In my working life thusfar, I have been a campus missionary, a graduate student, and a low-level lab manager in an expensive neighborhood (e.g. my pay was better than as a missionary; my costs were higher still). At every juncture I would have described myself, financially, as poor. And, based on the poverty level standards, this would have been objectively true. Yet I was raised in a middle-class household, in a stable family, in a culture with certain values. It has only been fairly recently that my eyes have become adjusted to seeing what “poverty” looks like.
The numbers describe me and my family as poor. But we don’t look it. Instead, we look pretty successful. (We save a lot of money by not caring about having “satellite TV” or “high speed internet.”) In a strange way, in spite my financial “lacks” (i.e. I don’t make enough to save any money, and we spend more on food every month than we can afford), I feel successful while Vance, in spite of his financial gains (making upwards, we are told in the book, of $100K a year; good house; good neighborhood), feels unsuccessful. What constitutes this? What is “social class” really, if it isn’t, as so many sociologists or economists (or policy-makers) claim, an economic demographic?
A problem confronts me whenever I set down to think about theology: I have been to too many different places. At present, I live in a demographically-mixed (all the demographics!) part of Chicago’s South Side; in the past, I lived in a poorer part of the river town Alton, IL; I grew up in a middle-class household in an impoverished rural county; I once lived in a burgeoning up-and-coming town for the upper-middle-class. And this is just the state of Illinois!
An observation that I have seen in my life throughout Illinois (and also in my sojourns to other states as well) is that denominational / theological groups thrive in certain socioeconomic circumstances. The more poor, the more rural, the more Pentecostals, the more Baptists, and the more non-denominationals (who are really Baptists). Drive through eastern Tennessee into the mountains, for instance, and you will see, one after another, X Baptist Church, Y Baptist Church, Z Church of Christ, Q Church of Christ, R “Fancy Name Big Church” (which might be non-denominational evangelical or charismatic, you can’t quite tell by the sign).
This observation is just an observation, of course, and I haven’t yet gotten the chance to dig up the data for it. My hunch is that there are surely a few of churches that don’t fit these socioeconomic trends, and yet my hunch is also that this is the minority. There is a history to this phenomenon: most American denominations were founded by ethnic minorities as they migrated to the country. Poor Irish settlers (like my great-great-great-grandfather Caveny) brought with them their Roman Catholicism, not-quite-as-poor-but-still-poor German farmers brought with them their Lutheranism or their Congregationalism, while more financially-astute English immigrants brought Methodism and Anglicanism.
Different ethnic groups brought with them different levels of financial stability and different home-cultures and values when it came to work, money, and the like (although discerning those cultures and values becomes a very difficult ethnographic task, one that cannot be navigated lightly). The different ethnic groups in America for a long time created different social classes, and these social classes became tied to theological identities.
How American society transformed from ethnically-determined churches into socioeconomically-determined churches, especially amidst white people, is a mystery that I do not want to broach here, and it should go without saying that there is another parallel story that occurs in American society with regards to African-American, Hispanic, and other minority churches. But the result of these historical processes is clear: somehow when you land in a geographic location determined by certain economic situations, you can already get a sense of the theology of that people.
This leads me to propose a surprising and bizarre claim: theology in America is the result of socioeconomic class more often than it is the result of Bible-training, study, and preaching.
Vance finds this to be true in his memoir. His observations of the culture of Appalachian hillbillies includes claims like “[they have] a lack of agency,” they believe in “avoidance and wishful-thinking,” and “[they] had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.” He provides some statistical differences between how hillbillies perceive their own church attendance (“Why, of course I go to church!”) and how the actual church attendance in their towns; he notes the suspicion held by his communities towards ecclesiastical structures; he observes their personal, private commitments to Christian faith that are divorced from communal, public manifestations of it.
What manifests in utter suspicion of ecclesiastical structures in Appalachian appears as devout congregationalist / Baptist communities in my own southern Illinois. Non-denominational churches pop up like wildfire in the rural Midwest, communities with little to no oversight except centralized pastoral authority. American civil worship practices appear too, like the displaying of patriotic symbols (the flag, “God bless America!”) or the singing of the National Anthem at a church. I remember visiting a church on the Fourth of July in which the whole congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, something that to me was utterly off-putting but absolutely normal for the community. For many in rural churches this is a natural manifestation of their Christian belief.
I am “waving” at something here. One of the pinnacles of Protestant — especially Reformed, but also Wesleyan — belief is the emphasis that beliefs, values, doctrines, and practices find their home in the Scriptures first. And, yet, if we take Vance’s personal stories of Appalachian faith to heart, and if my admittedly-broad observations ring true, then it would seem that theologies and doctrines are not as based off of “serious Scriptural study” as they are based off of socio-economic class, with a priority to the “social” part over the “economic.”
The pastor-theologian should find this strange and maybe even a little troubling. If a pastor’s goal is to see my people grow in the knowledge of the Lord and in a knowledge of His Word, how is it that the people under pastoral authority seem to grow most effectively in a knowledge of the socio-cultural beliefs they already bring with them? And, given these socio-cultural beliefs are difficult to leave behind, as we see Vance wrestle near the end of the memoir, how is a pastor to provoke pervasive underlying beliefs that have a lot more to do with American or social-class identity than our ancient Christian identity or the Scriptures?
Theologically speaking, this is the problem that feels most at stake in Vance’s work. There are surely problems of socio-economics, justice, cultural-community dynamics and the like that one could discuss from Hillbilly Elegy, but the issue of a socially-determined (as opposed to biblically-determined) theology is one that seems to manifest underneath a lot of the societal ills Vance describes. He comments, for instance, on how churches that ought to be a safety-net for low-income families instead have become so individualistic that their social benefit is altogether negated, to the detriment of his community.
How the American Christian should respond to this level of theological crisis, a thing tied to the socioeconomic crisis of the white poor, is complicated, and my goal here is simply to point out what Vance has already pointed out in his book. It is provocative enough to notice that most of our received theologies in evangelicalism are not the result of Bible study or theological inquiry, but instead the result of the strange interconnections between church-life and our social-cultural matrix. My hunch is that this is just another type of syncretism that American Christians do not see as such because we would rather describe syncretism as something “people in the third world” do. (As I overheard a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology say the other day: “Anthropology is the word white academics use to describe non-white cultures, while sociology is the word for white cultures.”)
If rural theologies flourish and propagate as a culturally- and socially-derived set of beliefs, even tied to economics and class, how ought pastors — in all types of communities and contexts — communicate the Gospel and discuss the Scriptures? Once the problem is clearly seen, it becomes difficult to know how to go forward. Vance wrote that “social class in America isn’t just about money”; but, as we have seen, so too “theology in America isn’t just about Bible studies and teaching.” Somehow both of these things rely on a rural culture that is much more powerful than we could have expected.