When I lived in Kansas, I occasionally stopped by the local “hardware store” (read general store) to get a pop on a hot day or grab some basics like milk and bread because I didn’t feel like making the drive to the nearest grocery store. One morning, I stopped in before class and several local farmers sat around a table, drinking coffee. One person was standing; he happened to be a candidate for the town mayor. I selected a few items and proceeded to pay at the counter when the gentleman walked up to me and introduced himself, informing me of the office for which he was running.
At first I was a bit annoyed; I wanted to get in and out (hard to do in small town). But then I realized this was an opportunity. The town water had become unsafe to drink, due to high levels of nitrate pollution. To get drinkable water, community members either had to buy bottled water or go to the fire station where they could fill their own bottles with clean water. I referred to this water station as “the village well.” To be honest, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. But perhaps there was something being done that I wasn’t aware of; perhaps the mayoral candidate would have some insight.
“I do have a concern,” I admitted to the promising politician. “It’s about the water. Seems like there are safety issues that need addressed. Little ones and pregnant mothers are using the water and it’s unsafe. We are having to put extra energy into something that should be a basic resource for the community…”
He interrupted me with a heavy sigh and a pregnant pause. To empathize and console, even if he was without adequate answers? To share his five step solution to the problem? To inform me about a committee meeting or stakeholder discussions happening in the near future? Nope. He wanted to set me straight:
“That’s what the socialists want you to think.”
I stood there in stunned silence. For a moment, I wondered if he had the same convictions about public roads and police but decided to move on. I grabbed my caffeinated beverage and generic cereal and went to class. I was late and it wasn’t even worth it…
For many people, this is the epitome of how rural folks relate to government. Taxes bad, freedom good. Public bad, private good. Communists vs. Christian Capitalists. Interestingly enough, some highly rural states like Kansas have a history of radicalism and populism. You’ve probably heard of “bleeding Kansas” and how Kansas was a battleground for the anti-slavery movement. You probably have not heard that Kansas had a reputation in the late 19th and early 20th century as a hub of socialist organizing. Author and native Kansan Thomas Frank reviewed this history in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? He mourns the way this history has been neglected as Kansas folks traded their populist solidarity and economic progressivism for what he considers a misguided obsession with a few narrowly defined moral concerns. Frank writes with sharp clarity:
Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.
Frank wrote those words during the George W. Bush administration; I’m sure he sees the “gravity of discontent” pulling strongly in the Trump era. He and I would agree that the Democratic Party, with its embrace of identity politics, has not provided a strong enough field of force to pull back against that “gravity.”
The truth, of course, is that neither the aspiring mayor nor the disgruntled progressive capture the full picture of rural reality.
In that same small, conservative Kansas town I visited an elderly gentleman and listened to him talk for an hour about his experiences in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). He spoke with pride and fondness about the work he did–serving his country and helping his family–and the buddies with which he worked. The CCC, of course, was a program created as part of FDR’s New Deal. The New Deal is a hallmark of liberal pride from an era when the progressive movement was able to forge a coalition of urban and rural populations to pass legislation that helped lift the country out of the depression, preserve precious natural resources, and literally leave a lasting mark on the American landscape (mostly for the better). For many years, several pieces of the New Deal enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support. Some programs remain to this day, often in updated and reformed varieties.
The sad truth today, however, is that most of the self-styled progressives I know have no clue about crop insurance, conservation programs in farming, land grant universities, the impact of trade and immigration policy on farming exports, or even the basics of the New Deal or the last Farm Bill. “Back to the land” and “farm to fork” trends have made many more aware of food and farming policy. This is often helpful but sometimes provides just enough information to make folks dangerous, or at least judgmental. They grow a tomato plant in the back yard and suddenly feel entitled to judge the conventional farmer sitting on his tractor, hogging the road. “Look at this Monsanto-loving, fossil fuel guzzling polluter making me late for my barista job and getting mud all over my Prius.” (For the record, I love Starbucks and Prius, and I’m no fan of Monsanto; but you get the point).
I wonder what would happen if the conversation changed. What would happen if progressives would once again take the triumphs and tragedies of the Heartland seriously? What would happen if they could see rural people and places as part of the social fabric that must thrive if the country is to thrive–not just a bunch of racist hicks to be outvoted or angry white working class men that need appeased? What if the small towns that dot the American landscape were seen as critical places that grow people and plants and crops and communities–as part and parcel to a vision of social justice and not its enemy.
I also wonder what would happen if conservatives took the triumphs and tragedies of the Heartland seriously. What would happen if they could stop idealizing rural Americans as boot-strapping, self-sufficient patriots of perfection and acknowledge the vulnerabilities they bear–things that a new big box store in town is not going to fix? What if new conservatives would focus less on demonizing government and glorifying guns and promote a vision of a “more perfect union” that lifts up local, agrarian life in a realistic, dignified way?
What if we stepped away from the win/lose, victim/villain game for a few minutes and fixed our eyes on something else? What emerges when we start with a vision of renewed, vital communities rather than an ideology of anti-government or activist-government? Perhaps our calling is the same one received by the exilic community from the prophet Jeremiah: seek the shalom of your place (Jeremiah 29).This vision of flourishing and well-being calls us all to find our place and our work, whether it’s on the farm, boardroom, spiritual community, or the halls of Congress. Jeremiah mentions several prophetic tasks that are deeply agrarian and communitarian: root yourself locally, plant gardens, start and grow families, tend a household, farm a field, eat good food together, pray for the peace and prosperity of your place. This vision of shalom has room for liberals and conservatives, public and private sectors, families and activists. It must: anything less is an unworthy imitation of justice. Teachers from Socrates and Confucius to Jefferson and Jesus have reminded us that social harmony and prosperity require a refreshing reform that runs from field to home to throne. It’s also true that rural places have shaped some of the great leaders of American government: think of Lincoln’s boyhood in rural poverty; Jimmy Carter’s famous hometown of Plains, Georgia; Eisenhower’s western mythology-shaped childhood in Abilene, Kansas; or Washington’s oft-repeated vision of America–borrowed from the prophet Micah–in which everyone and every family can sit under their own vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.
The ancient prophetic vision of Jeremiah is one that has been caught by people across history. Thankfully, right this moment, all kinds of people from all kinds of places are cultivating shalom in their neighborhood and community. You may be one of them. I’m learning to become one of them. I’ve seen enough to know it’s a vision better than any one party or ideology. It is a vision that challenges the small town mayor to act boldly for his thirsty neighbors. A vision that challenges a young man to travel, bleed, and sweat for his family and country with the CCC. A vision that asks our politicians to take seriously the wounds and gifts of rural America and not say “peace, peace, when there is no shalom!” (also from prophet Jeremiah).
When you catch a glimpse of this vision, what invitations and imperatives come with it?