Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, available at Amazon.com, a brand-new book, and a companion piece written in the New York Times faith section last Sunday, “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class” is on the Dude Maker Hotline with us. Check out today’s transcript for the rest….
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Let’s talk to J.D. Vance who wrote this piece for the New York Times last week that Jordan Bloom brought to my attention, “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class.” J.D. is also working on a book, something about a Hillbilly Elegy. I’m not sure about the book. I don’t know if the book is out yet, but J.D. is joining us here on the Dude Maker Hotline on the Crusade Channel, part of the Veritas Radio Network. J.D., how are you?
J.D. Vance: I’m good. How are you guys doing?
Mike: We are well. So, what is the title of the book that “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class” might be an offshoot from?
Vance: Hillbilly Elegy is a book – it actually came out Tuesday. I encourage your listeners to go out and grab a copy. It’s fundamentally about my family and what is a larger cultural problem in the white working class. A lot of that is traced, I think, to a decline of religious faith and religious dependence. The book is really a kind of study but viewed through my eyes and my family’s eyes about what happens when families and communities break down. At the end of the day, hopefully it’s an optimistic message about what happens when loving folks step in and try to make a difference in the lives of their communities. I think that’s the story of my life. I almost dropped out of high school, was getting into drugs, and eventually was sort of rescued by a few people. I think I’ve lived a very happy and blessed life now. That’s what the book is about. The piece is an offshoot of that.
Mike: You say in one of the opening paragraphs:
Despite these benefits, church attendance has fallen substantially among the members of the white working class in recent years, just when they need it most. Though working-class whites earn, on average, more than working-class people of other ethnicities, we are in a steep social decline.
Mike: I’ve got to ask you, are you a fan of Charles Murray? This is right out of Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America.
Vance: Absolutely. What I see fundamentally as the problem is – in some ways there’s a top-down problem. Globalization and industrialization of these local economies has really hurt people. It’s really kind of kicked them in the gut with the decline of manufacturing jobs and blue-collar jobs. Part of what’s happened in response to that is where I think church attendance could be a really good force in people’s lives. People have actually stopped going. While there is a slight going down of church attendance rates among the white working class since the 1960s, it appears to have accelerated pretty significantly in the past 20 or so years.
Mike: Then you conclude:
Incarceration rates for white women are on the rise, white youths are more likely than their peers from other groups to die from drug overdoses and rates of divorce and domestic chaos have skyrocketed. Taken together, these statistics reveal a social crisis of historic proportions. Yet the white church – especially the evangelical church that claims the most members – has seemingly disappeared.
Mike: Do you mean the church teaching or the church leaders have disappeared, or do you mean the actual physical buildings and the number of them?
Vance: What I mean is that the church has disappeared in that people aren’t going anymore. I don’t necessarily mean that the buildings aren’t there or that the leaders aren’t necessarily trying. But what’s happening is, because people aren’t going, the churches just disappeared as a factor in their lives. There has definitely been a change, I think, in the actual religious institutions themselves. The churches are getting bigger. There are fewer community-based churches. I would imagine, though I don’t make this claim, my guess is that you have less in absolute numbers of actual churches out there. The really critical point is that these folks need church. It really has disappeared from their lives because they’re not going anymore. I think why they’re not going is really complicated. I talk about it a little bit in this piece. It’s definitely clear that they’re not attending as much as they used to.
David Simpson: J.D., I would argue – and let’s talk about that a little on why they aren’t going. My theory – of course, this is just – like you said, it’s multifaceted, so this isn’t the only thing. One person has said or several people have said that the greatest achievement the devil ever achieved was convincing everyone he didn’t exist and that sin didn’t exist. I find that the churches – I’m talking about Catholic churches, Protestant churches, really any faith almost at this point – has decided that it’s more popular to give a watered-down and somewhat less-than-moral message out there and preach things like success and happiness and you’re going to feel good and have lots of friends, versus teaching what’s right and wrong. It seems to me that that’s not a very compelling message. I’m talking about the prosperity gospel. It’s not very compelling, so people will ultimately say: I don’t believe it, so I’m going to go home. I can get as much of that watching television as I can sitting in the pew. What do you think about that as maybe one of the fundamental causes?
Vance: I think that’s a really good point. I’m not a fan of the prosperity gospel myself. I think that it’s problematic in a couple ways. One, the thing that was really helpful and continues to be helpful to me about the Christian faith is it forces me to ask really hard questions about the way I’m living my life. I don’t think the prosperity gospel does that enough. I think it encourages people too much to think: Everything is happy-go-lucky and I’ll say a prayer and everything is going to work out. The other thing I don’t love about the prosperity gospel is I think it connects success and material success to faith in a way that I don’t think it is super helpful. I’m not one of those people that believes that people who are especially successful, who have a big house, who have a big boat are necessarily more pious Christians. My grandma certainly didn’t have a lot of money, but she was the best Christian I ever met. There are a couple things about the prosperity gospel that really bother me. I’m right with you.
Mike: It seems to me, too – J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, available at Amazon.com, a brand-new book, and a companion piece written in the New York Times faith section last Sunday, “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class.” It seems to me that what David and you both said, I can kind of summarize this – so basically then the churches are now competing with Netflix and Hulu and Facebook and Twitter and other social media and Snapchat and everything else because they’re pretty much peddling – and they’re competing with Tony – imagine this, the churches are now competing with Tony Robbins. They’re competing with the people out there selling – from the movie Cocktail, remember Tom Cruise kept buying that series of books. He was going to make it in business some kind of way. Finally he read the right combination of books and they started running the cantina down in Barbados or wherever. J.D., it seems to me that that’s really, what you and David just said, just to sum it up, is there’s such a competition here. The mind is not hearing a really compelling holy competition. Kind of like what you described when you were eleven years old and you needed it, right?
Vance: Yeah. I think that’s definitely a fair point. People a lot of times don’t want to hear the message that they need to change the way they’re doing things, need to change the way they’re living. I do think there’s a lot of competition out there for people’s minds and attention. What I do think, though, and what gives me at least a little bit of hope that we may be able to turn this thing around, is that the evidence is on the side of what I might call orthodox Christianity. The evidence is clear. As I write in the piece, the churches with their regular churchgoers actually have better outcomes for the children, better outcomes for themselves. I hope that as some of these social crises fester in the white working class, or in other groups, people will think of church and think of the Christian faith as something that they see in the data as worthwhile. And hopefully that turns the thinking around a little bit, the way that folks have traditionally thought about church. Who knows? It’s kind of anybody’s guess how the next 20 years of religious faith in this country [unintelligible].
Simpson: I think that’s a great point. I’ll mix in other points you make in the article. I think it’s going to go down before it goes up. I do believe you’re right. You find someone of faith. You find someone who truly believes and you’re going to find a happy family, a holy family, a grace-filled family. That makes for good living. Not exactly the ideal American vision, meaning prosperity and wealth and happiness and everybody is clapping you on the back. It’s not that. It’s that you have a tightness and love and gentleness and a desire to help one another. That’s a big deal. Most people will, I think, come to realize the beauty of that thing and want to return to it.
The reason I think it’s going to go down, though, is another point you make in the article. You wrote, “This deinstitutionalization of the faith has occurred alongside its politicization.” I think what people have done now is associated with politics to such a level that politics is their god. They have a power. They have a power center. There’s lots of money being thrown at them, whether they can get it through welfare or corporate checks, some type of what I call corporate welfarism, which is all the grants and so on. They’ve kind of realigned themselves what they believe can be their salvation, if you will. That’s politics and power. I think that’s going to continue on until that thing kind of implodes. What do you think?
Vance: I think that’s a really interesting point. I haven’t thought a lot about how this really shakes out over the next ten to twenty years. It is definitely true that I think Christianity has not been served well by its association with a certain brand of politics. I say that as someone who is a Christian and someone who is a conservative. I think the fusion of the two sometimes detracts from the really important message of the church. I think that’s a really good point. I don’t quite know how this shakes out, if the house of cards comes tumbling down a little bit. My hope was always that – I’m one of these guys who believes in slow, incremental change. The sense that I get, both in the conversations that I have and the reactions to the piece, also just in talking to folks back home, is that there is a real recognition of the importance of faith as its own thing, not as a companion to any political viewpoint left or right, but importance of faith as its own thing. I’m hopeful that that interest picks up and that people continue to see the benefits of church and start changing the way they respond to it.
Mike: J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy and the companion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class” is on the Dude Maker Hotline with us. It’s the Mike Church Show here on the Crusade Channel, part of the Veritas Radio Network. I think when you talk about the political part of it, and David mentioned that people have given over to treating the government and politics as though it is a religion, to me there’s no question mark at the end of this. The annual pilgrimages that families make to go to Washington, DC to go bow down inside the Lincoln Parthenon are all the evidence that you need. People walking around looking at these massive – and they are ugly buildings. There’s nothing pretty about most of these government buildings. They’re looking at these massive, [mocking] “Look, there’s the IRS over there, kids. Look, kids, there’s the Department of Injustice.” It’s what’s been called the American civil religion.
I think that the civil religion – all three of us are talking about the same thing. There’s a departure from the faith. There’s been a departure from Christian teaching. Most certainly there’s been a departure away from a hands-off government that did not try to impose or meddle in the affairs of natural law, and left that up to municipalities. Now it is in full-scale assault mode. The state governments – people think all we’ve got to do is secede. Okay, well, explain Iowa. You secede in Iowa, you’re just going to be a little Germany inside a bigger one. I don’t see that as a way out.
I think one of the other things that is happening out there, and writers like you, J.D., that have the courage of your convictions to even write this knowing that you may risk friends and friendships for stepping out and saying: Hey, guys, we’ve got to go back orthodox. This watered-down stuff – no, I can’t go with you to the country music concert that has the barely-clad female backup singers with the skinny jean male singer that’s singing about illicit one-night affairs after he got drunk and then moving onto the next one the next day. Sorry, I can’t do that. How much of that has to also be addressed, J.D.?
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Vance: That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. Obviously it all feeds into each other. It kind of goes back and forth. The culture and the church, they kind of move – one affects the other and the other in turn affects and vice versa. I don’t have an easy answer. The thing that I will say, and the thing that has given me a little bit of comfort and optimism is, as bad as things seem, and I do think that they’re bad if you look at a timescale of 20 or 50 years. I don’t necessarily think that they’re that bad if you look at the timescale of 100 or 1,000 or 1,500 years. In our society, in our culture, I think we’ve definitely gone through these ebbs and flows of religious engagement and religious faith. I don’t necessarily think that just because things are trending bad for the past 10, 20, 30 years, that they’re necessarily always going to be trending bad. I think that – if you think like I do, you think maybe there’s some divine will at stake. Or if you’re looking at it from the social-historical perspective, you think that there’s just an ebb and flow. I do think that these things have a way of rescuing themselves over the long term. I think it’s kind of left to folks like us and people who agree with us to continue making those arguments and living our lives in a certain way and hoping that we can influence people.
End Mike Church Show Transcript