I never saw the Donald Trump phenomenon coming. Even as someone with many conservative friends and family members, I didn’t know anyone who supported him during his Republican run. But nearly everyone I know either has a college degree—which statistically narrowed one’s chance of voting for Trump in the primaries—or lives in a city, or both.
Trump’s ascent ultimately revealed a large demographic of Americans who were off my radar. Early primary polls showed that his supporters were more likely than voters overall to be poor, white, without higher education, and from rural counties or small towns. Though class conflict and rural/urban divides are not one and the same (there are people of all classes in small towns and in cities), their overlap exposes profound class and cultural divisions in America.
Many evangelical leaders have publicly grappled with Trump’s popularity. As America clusters in cities and suburbs—now home to a record 80 percent of the population—our church planting, poverty relief, and outreach ministry have shifted accordingly. For many, rural communities and small towns are faceless places we road-trip through on our way somewhere else.
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 in what one reporter has called “the vast open reaches of the country.” Many small-town and rural communities face unprecedented crisis. Their pain is now driving our national political life.
Since the 1990s, evangelicals have increasingly focused on “strategic” church planting in elite centers of cultural impact. Pastors like Timothy Keller helped us rediscover the important role of cities in shaping culture. Scholars like James Davison Hunter emphasized the cultural impact of small networks of elites. Churches embraced cities, the arts, and the academy with new fervor. They dedicated themselves to bringing the gospel to post-Christian sophisticates. They began church-planting initiatives like City to City through Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Manhattan) and the Send Cities project from the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.
Simultaneously, a growing movement of evangelicals rediscovered the biblical vision of economic and racial justice. Because many of the leaders of this movement—from Robert Lupton to Shane Claiborne—are urban dwellers, and because of decades of white flight and urban poverty, their focus tended to be on inner-city areas.
Together, these two powerful—and indeed, needed—trends meant that emerging evangelicalism had a decidedly urban focus and feel. Due to gentrification, cultural elites and urban poverty often occupied the same areas; volunteers tutoring kids in the projects sat blocks from a trendy, locally sourced restaurant.
Meanwhile, in small towns and rural communities, the working class struggled for work and relevancy. In his Vox essay “The Smug Style of American Liberalism,” Emmett Rensin traces how the political Left came to resent and belittle the white working class. Poorer whites, once a key base in the Democratic Party, no longer have a place in a fraternity dedicated to “the educated, the coastal, and the professional.” In 1948, 66 percent of manual laborers and 60 percent of farmers voted Democrat. By 2012, Democrats possessed only a 2-point advantage among white, working-class voters.