Washington Post wrote about overlooked rural evangelicals; now it needs to talk to them

Papa Ross was my dad's dad.

He had white hair, wore overalls and loved fishing and hunting. He worked most of his life as a farmer and carpenter. He was a faithful Christian who caused a stir in the 1970s when he and Grandma brought busloads of black children to their small white church in southeastern Missouri's Bootheel.

A veteran of World War II — where he was shot in the face — Lloyd Lee Ross always voted for Democrats until Ronald Reagan came along. He was one of those "rural Americans" who've received so much attention since the unexpected (at least to those of us who live in the Big City) election of Donald Trump as president.

Papa celebrated his 93rd birthday just a few weeks before he died in 2011. What would he have thought about the brash billionaire who'll move into the White House next month? I sure wish he were still living so I could ask him. I have no doubt he'd have a strong opinion — and wouldn't be shy about expressing it.

I thought about Papa as I read Washington Post religion writer (and former GetReligionista) Sarah Pulliam Bailey's thought-provoking piece last week on overlooked rural evangelicals:

In recent decades, white evangelical leaders made the American city their mission field. If you wanted to change hearts and minds, you had to go to cultural centers of power, such as New York City or Washington, where the population was growing. Now some evangelicals are wondering if that shift has caused them to overlook the needs and concerns of their counterparts in rural America.
Donald Trump’s victory put the spotlight on white, rural voters, many of them evangelicals, who were drawn to his “Make America Great Again” message. Even as exit polls suggested that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, some evangelicals in urban and suburban areas said they didn’t personally know other evangelicals who vocally supported the president-elect. Although three-quarters of evangelicals are white and lean heavily Republican, they are a huge and diverse group, accounting for a close to a quarter of all Americans, with Latinos making up the fastest-growing segment.
Trump carried nearly 93 percent of rural, mostly white evangelical counties, according to political scientist Ryan Burge. Nearly all of the rural evangelical counties that did not break for Trump were counties in Southern states where African Americans make up a majority of the population, Burge’s analysis shows. Data isn’t available showing how white evangelicals in urban and suburban areas voted.

I'll echo what some other folks have said (on Twitter and elsewhere) about my former GetReligion colleague's report: It raises an important issue and presents it in a smart, fascinating way:

Piggybacking off Godbeat veteran Bob Smietana's suggestion that "this is the big religion story for 2017," here's what I'd like to see going forward. Both from the Post and other major media, it seems to me that there's a big need to send a reporter — I nominate Sarah Pulliam Bailey — to some actual rural churches to interview real evangelicals who voted for Trump. 

I'm reminded of Charlotte Observer religion writer's Tim Funk's eye-opening visit to the small town of Faith, N.C., before the election:

If there's a weakness in Bailey's original story (emphasis on "if" since I'm writing about a friend who has my email address ... LOL), it's that the focus is on sources from urban areas.

Yes, a couple of rural pastors are quoted — but one serves a 250-member church and the other a 120-member church, whereas most congregations in America have weekly attendance under 100. Besides that, what rural evangelicals think and believe aren't necessarily the same thing as what their pastors say.

In the absence of such voices in the Post story, some of the analysis sounds pretty condescending:

High concentrations of rural evangelicals “create echo chambers in small communities,” Burge said. “Many people vote for the Republican because they have never heard that an evangelical can be a Democrat.”
Small-town evangelical churches also reinforce a Republican culture informally through conversations in Sunday school classrooms or bumper stickers in the parking lot, Burge said. “This creates what’s called the ‘spiral of silence,’ where minority voices are afraid to speak up and then persuadable voters are convinced that everyone agrees with the loudest voices,” he said.

Thank you, Mr. Expert, for explaining rural folks.

Now I'd love to hear from a few of them.

Photo of rural Iowa church by Bobby Ross Jr.

Please respect our Commenting Policy