Suburbia has become a flashpoint of the 2020 election as both presidential campaigns vie for its voters, particularly suburban women. President Trump won the suburban vote by four points in 2016, but most recent polling puts Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead by a similar or greater margin for 2020.
Trump wants to undo that reversal, and his chosen strategy is to present himself as the champion of, in his phrasing, the “suburban housewife” and her “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” The message is NIMBYism—“not in my backyard”—gone national. It is also a new version of an old temptation of misplaced trust Christians have always faced. Ancient wisdom from a third-century African bishop, Cyprian of Carthage, can help us escape its lure.
Trump’s defense of the suburbs has two facets. One is about the dangerous people who could go there: Trump says a Biden presidency will mean violent criminals moving into and/or looting and otherwise terrorizing suburban neighborhoods without consequence. The president has no control over who buys which houses, of course, nor does he have much influence over local policing. This half of the claim is best read as symbolic hyperbole: What Trump is communicating is not a pledge of specific policy action but a promise of favor, security, and status for his supporters. It’s about shared fears and antipathies, not deciding who lives next door.
The second facet of Trump’s NIMBY message is about housing. The issue at hand is zoning rules that say what can be built in which locations. These regulations are typically set by city or county governments, but Washington can encourage local officials to change them by restricting federal subsidy money to cities that zone a certain way. (This can be persuasive, because suburbia runs on subsidies.)
So when Trump says Democrats want to “abolish” the suburbs, what he means is they want to adjust local laws and federal incentives to allow duplexes, granny flats, and perhaps small businesses or apartment buildings in areas formerly zoned solely for single-family homes. This change is called “up-zoning,” and Trump argues it will destroy the ’burbs, “bother[ing]” suburbanites with “low income” neighbors.
Critics have argued (persuasively, I think) that Trump’s language is code for racial exclusion, a code cracked by knowledge of the long history of zoning as a tool of state-enforced segregation and the correlation of race and poverty in America. At the very least it is wildly unrealistic: We could instantaneously eliminate single-family zoning nationwide, and most of American suburbia would change little or not at all. Established neighborhoods might see a few duplex conversions and mother-in-law suite additions—if they’re lucky, a church or coffee shop in walking distance—but developers wouldn’t plunk 40-story high rises into quiet cul-de-sacs.
This is why up-zoning advocacy was historically a cross-partisan position with strong conservative support: It gives property owners greater freedom and, by reducing housing costs, can make having children and caring for elderly parents more accessible. Beyond these familial benefits, for Christians, up-zoning can make it easier to worship and minister where we live, to make our church community an integral part of our neighborhood. (The very name of NIMBYism’s opposite, YIMBYism—“yes in my backyard”—sounds like an invitation to a church potluck, doesn’t it?) Up-zoning can also give us new opportunities to practice loving our neighbors by literally giving us more neighbors. “One implication of extreme-separation zoning laws is that they reduce our contact with people of other socioeconomic classes and thus reduce our potential for compassion,” writes pastor Eric O. Jacobsen in Sidewalks in the Kingdom, which delves deeper than I can here into the importance of urban design for the outworking of Christian faith.
What does all this have to do with temptation? Well, housing makes us feel safe—and, in a sense, it should. Our homes fulfill a basic human need for shelter. It is good and right for us not only to have housing but also to enjoy it. In Scripture, loss of your home can be a sign of divine judgment for sin (e.g., Jer. 6:12, Ezek. 26:12), while dwelling comfortably in your home is a blessing from God (e.g., Isa. 65:21–22, Ezek. 45:4). Jesus promises his followers rooms in his Father’s house (John 14:1–3), and Paul longs to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
Home is a good gift from God, yet our homes become our idols if we make them the source of security we ought to find in Christ. I know this because I’m prone to that idolatry. My family moved often when I was growing up, and it was generally not a Suburban Lifestyle Dream. We once lived in a camper and also a motel. The house I own now figures prominently in my assessment of life—sometimes too prominently, providing a substitute sense of refuge I know I ought to find only in God. I don’t think I’m alone in this predilection: Eight in 10 Americans say homeownership “is a vital component of achieving the American dream.” Our homes mean a lot for how others see us and how we see ourselves.
who, excluding the poor from their neighborhood, stretch out their fields far and wide into space without any limits … even in the midst of their riches those are torn to pieces by the anxiety of vague thought, lest the robber should spoil, lest the murderer should attack, lest the envy of some wealthier neighbor should become hostile, and harass them with malicious lawsuits. Such a one enjoys no security either in his food or in his sleep.
The security we seek in a Suburban Lifestyle Dream is a lie, Cyprian said, because searching for security outside of God leaves us with emptiness, fear, and vulnerability instead. Enjoying a large yard or a single-family house isn’t sinful. But making any home—suburban or not—the foundation of our identity or a fortress to be guarded against the “intrusion” of the poor into our communities most certainly is.
The way to “solid and firm and constant security,” Cyprian advised, is to be “anchored on the ground of the harbor of salvation, to lift [our] eyes from earth to heaven.” For “when the soul, in its gaze into heaven, has recognized its Author, it rises higher than the sun, and far transcends all this earthly power, and begins to be that which it believes itself to be.” No matter the zoning laws or election results, it is God who “make[s our] lot secure” (Ps. 16:5).
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.