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.
Evangelicals make up a higher percentage of the population in rural areas, but Burge estimates that just 19 percent of U.S. evangelicals live in low-population areas. The rest live in urban and suburban areas. But on average, they account for just 10.7 percent of the population in metropolitan areas, according to Burge’s analysis.
Concentration matters. For example, in counties of less than 25,000 people where evangelicals made up 25 percent or more of the population, Mitt Romney won 68 percent of the vote in 2012 and Trump got 73 percent. In same-size counties where evangelicals made up more than 50 percent of population, Romney drew 72 percent and Trump won 77 percent.
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.
Meanwhile, the electoral college gives less populous, largely rural states disproportionate votes in presidential elections.
As major ministries, conferences, book publishing and church planting became centers of evangelical activity in urban and suburban areas in recent decades, evangelical leadership and priorities shifted away from small-town America. Some evangelicals believe this shift has created a huge disconnect in an already fractured evangelicalism, which has no formal hierarchy or leadership.
“The rise of Trump brought for me conviction of sin: I did not have ears to hear and take seriously the suffering and frustration of impoverished whites,” Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest who lives in Austin, wrote for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today in September.
By overlooking the working class and small towns, urban-suburban evangelicals have not been addressing issues close to people there, including poverty, high mortality rates, drug use and job loss, Anthony Bradley, a professor at King’s College in New York, wrote in a piece for World magazine. Many of these issues drove the evangelical vote in rural areas.
Bradley also pointed out that rural evangelicals are not usually the ones invited to speak at national conferences or who receive book contracts, so their concerns and perspectives are not communicated on a national scale. That’s why, he said, you might see a number of evangelicals like Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore speak out against Trump while many of his followers did not follow suit.
Rural evangelicals gave Trump a pass on the character flaws, Bradley said, because in their minds such flaws were less important than such issues in their communities as jobs, stable families, education options and terrorism.
“Evangelicals have internally tribalized by class and by educational pedigree,” Bradley said. “Some of the people we think of as evangelical leaders are completely out of touch with the sorts of fears and issues of people who live in rural America.”
Bradley is right, said Timothy Keller, a pastor who has been influential in evangelical efforts to plant churches in urban centers. Ahead of the election, Keller, who leads Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, said that, aside from best-selling author Eric Metaxas, he did not know one evangelical openly supporting Trump.
Keller made his own shift from a rural church to eventually lead one in the country’s largest city and a global church-planting network called City to City.
“Cities have a cool factor, a starry-eyed cool factor,” he said. “Young evangelicals are not motivated to go to places that are not very desirable places to live.”
Keller said young pastors could learn quite a bit by starting at a small-town church in rural America. Pastors at larger churches in big cities tend to specialize in areas such as ministries to women or children, while rural pastors usually do a little bit of everything, he said.
At the same time, evangelicals are very aware of the demographic shifts around the country. For example, New York City has grown by more than 1 million people since 1990, and Keller believes it needs many more churches to meet projected growth.
“People are not distributing themselves evenly between urban, suburban and rural areas,” he said. “You have to come to grips with that.”
If you look at book sales, Twitter followings or name recognition, evangelicals have largely shifted their attention toward urban and suburban pastors, said Chris Brauns, pastor of the Red Brick Church, a church of about 250 in the small rural town of Stillman Valley, Ill.
Pastors like Brauns who live in rural areas said they were not surprised by the strength of support for Trump. Brauns said he would see his parishioners post photos of their rising insurance bills on Facebook. Jobs are scarce in rural areas, and many people are self-employed, so health care is a key concern.
Much of the best work and knowledge-sharing right now is gravitating toward cities, he said. Brauns has argued that what urban pastors like Keller teach on secularism is important for people in his rural congregation.
“Theologically, our people, especially our older folk, confuse Christianity and country more than I would like,” he said. The confusion, he believes, is greater in rural areas than in urban areas.
“People view the Pledge of Allegiance in an almost confessional way,” Brauns said.
Matthew Spandler-Davison moved to the United States from Scotland to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He planned to plant a church and then return to his home country. Instead, he has remained pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church, a church of about 120 people in rural Kentucky, for 12 years. He said his church was split between voting for Trump and voting for a third-party candidate, while most of the town voted for Trump.
Spandler-Davison sees a loss of identity and social cohesion due to globalization as factories have downsized, resulting in a loss of stable and well-paying jobs. In a small town, if you lose your job, you may have no choice but to move to find work, so families become transient.
People are also concerned that their communities are changing too rapidly demographically, he said. “My fear is that in rural America multiculturalism has been viewed negatively rather than as an opportunity. . . . Churches have an opportunity to lead the way in this, but we are not,” he said.
Spandler-Davison said it’s difficult for pastors to know how to address the issues that are specific to rural America.
“It has a proud and rich tradition, a strong heritage in the past. It’s hard to know how to speak to that in a way that isn’t going to be condescending but is going to be helpful,” he said. “Most ministries are coming in as outsiders.”
Rural evangelicals were aggravated by elite Americans whom they viewed as ready to abandon small-town values of faith and individual freedoms. “Their pro-guns position is presented as sinister. Pro-life values are portrayed as being anti-women,” Spandler-Davison said. “The desire to run a business in line with their religious convictions is reported as bigotry.”
The overall message, they perceived, “was like, ‘We’re progressive, you’re regressive, we’re moving forward and leaving you behind,’ ” he said. “Small town America said ‘no.’ ”