As I’ve already written, I don’t think Obama’s comments are a big deal. In fact, a combination of Feiler Faster and Annie Oakley seem to be shifting the news cycle as we speak. But that said, Obama’s comments do show a bit of ignorance with respect to religion in small towns. To me, religion — at least in these communities — simply can’t be reduced to economics. But that’s what Obama was doing, however charitably you parse his words.
I’m speaking mostly from experience here — I grew up in a working class, factory-and-farms town in rural Kentucky. Take away the unions and the ability to buy alcohol in stores (we never repealed Prohibition)*, and I suspect my town is a lot like these little Pennsylvania towns.
From my perspective, Obama’s arguments — much like Thomas Frank’s — betray a cultural ignorance of how religion works in these communities. For one, these small towns lack the type of class consciousness necessary to “drive” them to religion. As David Brooks has noted in earlier works, everyone in these communities thinks they’re at least middle class. People simply don’t conceive of themselves as “economically distressed,” even if they are.
One reason they don’t is that small towns don’t experience the types of massive income disparities that cities face. The “rich” kid in my school was the doctor’s son who wore a Polo shirt to the crappy public school. But that “rich” kid still went to school with the “poor” kids, quite unlike the situation in most urban areas (e.g., Sidwell vs. Southeast DC public schools). Thus, while people here are struggling as to the rest of the country, their struggles are less obvious as compared to people in their own community.
In reality, religion in these communities is a social and cultural phenomenon, not an economic one. If anything, churchgoers — at least in my town — tended to have relatively higher incomes (church membership lends social respectability and can be a sign of status).
Going to church is just something you do — it’s a tradition carved deeply into the fabric of these societies. If everyone suddenly became rich, they would all still be in their pews on Sunday morning. They may be bored, drowsy, and waiting for the football game, but they would be in the pews nonetheless.
Personally, I’ve found that the most rabid nutcase religious types tend to come from megachurches in the exurbs, which are hardly Dickensian London. It’s difficult to explain, but rural communities have a lot more complexity than people think.
The bottom line is that it’s not so much that people like Obama are being intentionally elitist, it’s that their unfamiliarity with the landscape leads them to make rather grossly ignorant statements without even realizing that they’re ignorant. I suspect the inhabitants of Sadr City experience similar sentiments every 30 minutes or so.
*In case you're wondering where high school kids get beer, the answer is . . . bootleggers. Or so I've heard.