I recently read a book by Timothy Carney called Alienated America; the subtitle is Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. The answer to that question is simple, yet profound. Before we get to the answer, however, let’s backtrack a bit. First of all, let’s define the word “alienated.” The simplest definition is this: a feeling of not belonging. This can be viewed at the most local of levels–the family–at a national (or even world) level, and at all points in between.
Carney’s purpose in writing this book was to try to understand why Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Carney’s conclusion is that wherever there was widespread alienation, Trump garnered the most votes. How is alienation measured? One of the easiest ways to do it is to measure community involvement, or the lack thereof. For example, are people involved in any community organizations? Even if they’re not formally involved in an organization, is there a restaurant or some other place in the community where the locals like to hang out? Where there was little to no involvement in the local community, Trump usually won, and rather easily. The converse was also true; where there was high community involvement, Trump usually lost to one of the other Republican candidates.
As one example of a place with high community involvement, Carney writes about Oostburg, Wisconsin (pop. 3077 in 2020). Another similar place he writes about is Orange City, Iowa (pop. 6267 in 2020). (On a personal note, Orange City happens to be just 11 miles from Sioux Center, which happens to be the home of Dordt College (now Dordt University), where I got my Bachelor’s degree. Sioux Center and Dordt are also mentioned in the book. Oostburg happens to be the home of a friend of mine who also went to Dordt.) A third place Carney writes about is the Village of Chevy Chase, Maryland (pop. 2062 in 2020). One similarity you may have noticed between these three places is the small populations; however, while Orange City and Oostburg are populated by people of relatively modest incomes, Chevy Chase is a haven of the rich. Regardless, Trump’s share of the Republican primary vote was low in all three of these communities. However, I should add that during the presidential election, residents of Oostburg and Orange City went for Trump, while Chevy Chase residents went for Hillary Clinton.
At the other end of the spectrum is Fayette City, Pennsylvania (pop. 544 in 2020), a place that has low community involvement and which voted heavily for Trump, both during the Republican primary and during the presidential election. Fremont County, Iowa (pop. 6939 in 2020; yes, that’s the entire county!) is another place with low community involvement and which voted heavily for Trump. Fayette City (a misnomer if there ever was one!), however, is very poor, while Fremont County is more similar to Orange City, Iowa.
There have been people who have said that Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination–and then the presidential election–because of poor working-class white men who see the American Dream as dead. While it’s true that working-class whites voted heavily for Trump, it should be clear by now that the picture is more complex–and yet simpler–than that. Community involvement, or lack thereof, explains the 2016 Republican primary results better. That’s why, for example, Orange City, which has heavy community involvement, didn’t vote for Trump, while economically similar but low-community-involvement Fremont County did.
Since my blog focuses on Biblical answers to questions and issues, what does all of this have to do with Christianity? Just this: Carney, quoting Robert Putnam, says that nearly half of all memberships, philanthropy, and volunteering in the U.S. occurs in a religious context. In addition, again referencing Putnam, churchgoers get more involved in nonreligious activities and organizations than non-churchgoers. Places like Oostburg and Orange City have strong church involvement, while Fayette City and Fremont County don’t. I should add that religiously observant Jews and Muslims also tend to be a part of strong communities.
There are various ways to become involved in a community; strong parental involvement in schools comes to mind. Church, however, is one of the best answers to the problem of alienation, to put it mildly. Even though church attendance has been declining for decades, it still holds up well compared with the decline of other community organizations, like Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, and bowling leagues. If you are part of a local church body where you know fellow believers and can also serve, you probably don’t feel alienated; I certainly don’t. Another way to belong is online; for various reasons, including COVID concerns, some believers are part of an online church. Joseph Geiser, for example, who I’ve been getting to know online since last year, pastors the Hebrews 10 Church, which meets via Zoom; here’s a link to it via Telegram: https://t.me/Heb10Church.
If you’re not part of a church, I hope you will seek one out. Not only can you find a place to belong; you will find people who can introduce you to Jesus Christ, if you don’t know Him already.