This guest review is by Dr. Miles Smith.
In 2014 The King’s College professor Anthony Bradley wrote an article on the plight of poor whites for World Magazine. That Bradley, an African American, first raised the issue seems strange, but Bradley did not downplay or ignore the racial differences between poor whites and African Americans. His argument instead transcended race, pointing out the shared socioeconomic hardships experienced by poor rural whites and blacks in modern American society. More importantly, Bradley noticed, suburban and urban Evangelicals typically joined the broader culture in shaming working class rural whites for their poverty and their culture. Bradley noted that “urban, justice-loving evangelicals easily shame white, suburban, conservative evangelicals for their racially homogenized lives, both communities seem to share a disdain for lower-class white people.”
Culturally pejorative terms for working class rural whites, “‘Rednecks,’ ‘crackers,’ “hoosiers,’ and ‘white trash’ are all derogatory terms used to describe a population of lower-class whites who have suffered centuries of injustice and social marginalization in America, especially from educated Christians.” That these terms remain acceptable in respectable society speaks to the wholesale marginalization of rural working class whites.
The election of 2016 and the candidacy of Donald Trump increased the interest of elite society in the white underclass. Their overwhelming support for the twice divorced billionaire—a supporter of abortion, coercing traditional marriage advocates, and incipient white nationalism—has often been couched in the language of the Christian Right. That Trump is neither actively Christian or conservative has made little difference. The appeals and subsequent denunciation of Trump supporters by prominent Evangelicals also fell on deaf ears, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding and societal disconnect between college-educated suburban and urban evangelicals, and working class and rural whites who often claim the same Evangelical mantle.
America was never the city on a hill.
Nancy Isenberg’s wonderful White Trash is in many ways definitive history of the white underclass. She transcends earlier histories by offering a comprehensive treatment of the white underclass without resorting to limiting definers such as white ethnography a la David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed or works based exclusively on urban workers, so common among twentieth century histories. Isenberg’s thesis is simple but enormously important.
She challenges the religious founding perpetuated by popular writers such as David Barton and Eric Metaxas. Far from being a Shining City on a Hill, England (and later Great Britain’s) North American colonies served as convenient dumping ground for what she terms expendable people and even waste people. Lest she be accused of exaggeration, the historical record includes a trove of occasions where seventeenth century colonial boosters argued that Virginia and later Massachusetts Bay could serve the dual purpose of colonizing North America in the cheapest way possible and expelling Britain’s “human offal” or excremental humans.
Isenberg’s invocation of waste people (forcibly) sent to populate and cultivate compliments her argument that far from being seen as a new Godly paradise for God’s chosen people, the New World instead remained a wasteland in the minds of seventeenth century Englishmen. Throughout the Colonial Era and after the creation of the United States government by British colonials, the agrarian economy constantly pushed waste people into waste lands. This, as much or more than the City on a Hill narrative, is the American story.
White Trash and religion have always had a complicated history.
The relationship of White Trash and religion was never close with regard to orthodoxy or orthopraxy. Isenberg does not imply that poor whites weren’t religious, or that they weren’t even quite devout. They simply couldn’t be respectably religious even if they wanted to. Put simply, the Americanized articulation of religion handed down to Evangelicals from the Puritans placed high priorities on religious devotion of the Puritan variety and also with the Puritan notion of material progress accompanying moral behavior.
Isenberg rightly argues that the hagiographic narrative of American history that extolled the New World as a harbor for those escaping religious persecution clouded and subsequently erased an earlier historical reality: Anglo-American colonization began as an enterprise to get rid of society’s least desirable people. The popularization of the Puritan narrative effectively wrote the story of the white underclass out of the popularly accepted narrative of American history.
Isenberg’s important revisions are valuable for Evangelicals today. “The twin attributes of religious freedom and hard work erase from the record all those settlers who did not live up to these high ideals.” Likewise, the prioritization of affluence, education, and religious respectability often cause Evangelicals to ignore those who do not meet our standards today.
White Trash have historically been targets for evangelical hucksters.
By adopting a long chronology, Isenberg brings the story of White Trash right up to the early twentieth century, and she argued that in the late twentieth century modern telemedia allowed the religiosity of poor whites to gain a platform hitherto unavailable to the white underclass. Isenberg plums the sociological depths of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the Praise The Lord television empire, the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Isenberg makes the case that poor white religion was in most cases a scam run by charismatic conmen (and women) that only continues a pattern of historical victimization.
In the case of the Bakkers, she points out that despite living and working in North Carolina, they both hailed from the working class Upper Midwest. They moved to the South because their message would resonate amongst the larger numbers of Charismatic and Revivalist Christians in the region. The insidious nature of poor white religiosity lay in the predatory financial nature of Charismatic religiosity. The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program’s viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were, most pitifully, unemployed. Staffers for PTL revealed that they sent appeals for money out at the beginning of the months, when many viewers received their Social Security and Welfare checks. Even as they were conned, poor whites bore the brunt of social contempt even as they were taken advantage of. Critics panned President Reagan’s decision to invite the Bakkers and other televangelists to the White House because it brought “white trash front and center.” More religious criticisms blasted the Bakkers and their ilk for dressing “like pimps,” terrible diction, and practicing irreverent and defiled religion.
Some Evangelicals react against the victimization of poor whites, but Isenberg makes a compelling case they were systematically marginalized by the American nation’s increasingly capitalistic social configuration. Mass media encouraged similar marginalization. While PTL and the Bakkers gained an audience, they encouraged respectable white society to engage in voyeurism. In an eerily prescient analysis, Isenberg ties white trash to the rise of reality TV. Tabloid coverage of the Bakkers fall from grace, she argues, began the official birth of reality TV.
“One can directly trace the unholy line from the out-of-control Bakkers to the gawking at rural Georgia white trashdom in TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Bakker’s perversions and the “underage beauty contestant’s shenanigans tapped into the public’s attachment to the tawdry behavior of the American underclass.” Americans, it seemed, censured poor whites while they used them for entertainment.
Evangelicals, especially those from Revivalist traditions, worried over the place of poor whites in the public imagination. When filming for the cinema version of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance began in Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, worried over the influence the film might have on the perceptions of poor white Georgians. Carter, to his credit, empathized with poor whites, who voted for him overwhelmingly. Despite sharing little more than a geographic origin and a Revivalist religious tradition, Carter sought to do more than shame poor whites.
As election day 2016 draws nearer it seems clear that Evangelicalism as historically understood has lost any influence with the white working class. Many blame the candidacy of Donald Trump, but in fact Trump’s candidacy has done nothing more than provide the white underclass with a vehicle to re-enter the public imagination as something more than a derisive prop on telemedia. Trump reveals the clarity of Isenberg’s observation: Religious white trash created reality TV and secular reality TV provided their vehicle to political influence poor whites are now very real, and a force to be reckoned with politically.
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Dr. Miles Smith IV is assistant professor in the Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University.