In the March 1 episode of conservative podcast The Bulwark, “Alienated America,” host Charlie Sykes converses with Tim Carney, author of a book also called Alienated America. Carney set out to understand why people in certain rural areas of the U.S. feel less alienated than others in similar situations. He found that healthier communities in rural towns made them less attracted to primary candidate Donald Trump’s message that the American Dream was dead, and so they voted for him in much smaller percentages in the primaries than the surrounding areas. Those healthier communities? Oostburg, Wisc.; Moline, Grand Rapids, and Holland, Mich.; and Sioux County, Iowa.
Carney was interested in this topic even before the elections rolled around, but the election brought these variations to the forefront. American communities experienced economic shifts very differently. Why?
The communities named above, according to Carney, are doing better because of church. As he explained, the Reformed people who live there have strong communities built on activities like softball leagues and shared worship experiences. He found that close-knit communities, like churches, are tiny “platoons” that bring people together, give a sense of commonality, and support healthy families and marriages. The sense of satisfaction in life and even the economic status of the community are greatly enhanced by these institutional ties.
Since it wasn’t the focus of the book, there is no discussion of what happened during the presidential election. But it’s interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on some of our Christian Reformed communities. Is it the ties that bind, or is it homogeneity? It’s a great challenge for churches to examine what binds them together—likeness in heritage or likeness in Christ—and to continue to build on the true commonalities of being Christian community together.
His “solution” is not an easy one. More little platoons in more areas building more community. There’s no top-down edict making sure this happens; this is grassroots stuff. Neighbors connecting with neighbors, people working together, and attention paid to building local community rather than fighting national differences in a digital platform.
You might not agree with everything Carney says. But to hear the church treated as a positive community influence, an important way of binding people together, and a source of more contentment is an outlier perspective these days. And it’s a good reminder that we, as a denomination, have a lot to offer the communities of which we are a part.