Donald Trump will the the next President of the United States. Not many people expected this. Like most people, I spent most of the last year bracing for at least four years of President Hillary Clinton, and Tuesday just seemed like an exercise in inevitability. Then the Rust Belt states stunned the world, and Trump took home the victory. A lot of people are trying to figure out what this means for America. As I prayed through this outcome this morning, God turned my thoughts toward what this says about America’s small towns and how the church must engage this part of the nation with the gospel.
1 – There are a lot of Americans living outside the urban centers
There is no mistaking the fact that small-town America flexed its muscles on Election Day to elect a candidate that those in urban areas were roundly rejecting. Turnout in rural counties was up significantly, and they were voting overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump. One of my theories for why the pollsters were so far off-base was that they ignored the villages of America. The church must not do the same thing. We cannot abandon the rural parts of this nation to be pastored only by young ministers looking to gain experience and move up and retiring ministers looking for a soft landing. We need people who will hear the call and go and invest their talents, creativity, spiritual gifts, and lives to bring the kingdom of God to the towns and villages of our country.
If small-town America is still strong enough to swing a presidential election and shock the world, there is plenty of strength for our small towns to be the spark that triggers a national awakening that sweeps like wildfire across our nation. God’s strategy is not our strategy. There are no insignificant places.
2 – “God and country” civil religion is still alive and well in rural America
I have never really understood the appeal of Donald Trump as a candidate, but as I have reflected on how he pulled this off, it’s pretty clear that his appeal comes down to old-fashioned patriotism. “Make America Great Again” appeals to people, because they love their country and they want America to lead and never follow on the world stage, to protect its own citizens first, and, as Trump puts it, to “win.” They expect people to honor the flag and the national anthem and to respect traditional institutions like the military, the police, and the church.
The problem with civil religion is that it often serves country rather than Christ and trusts in the flag rather than the cross. Due to decline and revolving-door pastorates in town and country churches across America, we have done a poor job of discipleship. Small towns are full of people who will pay their respects to the military, the flag, and to God, too, but they are not giving their lives to God’s kingdom, because they have never been asked to do so. As a result, many hope for the restoration of an America from the past rather than hoping in a better kingdom that lies ahead.
On the positive side, there is still much common ground from which to build. The premise that God is good, that churches are valuable, and that the Bible is helpful is still accepted in a lot of these places (whereas it is rejected in more cosmopolitan areas). People want their country and communities to thrive, and so do we. We have knowledge in the Word of God to turn their eyes to the true hope in Jesus Christ.
3 – Many people feel powerless
The paradox of Donald Trump was that the more the so-called “elites” hated him, the more staunchly his supporters backed him up. When Hillary Clinton called his supporters a “basket of deplorables,” many adopted the “deplorable” label for themselves as a badge of honor. Even though Trump himself is a billionaire power-player who has spent his career buying political influence and accumulating wealth in exploitative industries like online casinos, he became the champion of those who felt left behind, discarded, and ignored by the political establishment. A vote for Trump was a chance to strike back and be heard, and maybe regain some control.
There is tremendous power in being a child of God. The amount of authority and privilege promised in the Bible to those who live by the Holy Spirit is almost scandalous. There is power to break every addiction, to live free from sin, to heal the body and the soul, and to claim new territory for the Lord Jesus. Trump will ultimately disappoint the people who put their trust in him, because no man but Jesus is up to the challenge of being the hope of the nations. We must stop preaching the gospel that Dallas Willard called “the-gospel-of-the-minimum-requirements-for-getting-into-heaven-when-you-die” and start inviting people into the true power of living as sons and daughters of the King.
4 – We must be ministers of reconciliation
In our political climate, we seem to believe the worst about one another. Political opponents are not just people with whom we disagree on how to achieve worthy common goals, they are the enemy, people who must be either evil or stupid or both. People reflexively justify and defend people on their own side and demonize the other. In many ways, politics has become the new national religion, with competing ‘denominations’ competing for souls with great religious fervor.
This passion can be a problem for true religion. When people say, “We’re taking our country back,” who are they taking it back from? Who is alienated by that statement? Is it the Democrat next door? The black family across the street? The teen down the block who is beginning to believe she is gay or transgender?
One of my biggest reservations about Trump is that he seemed to use language that exacerbated this “us vs. them” mentality. As Christians, we must be people of blessing, praying for our enemies, blessing those who curse us, and being instruments of peace. Even those who remain enemies of the cross ought to be treated with such kindness that they are ashamed to slander the name of Jesus.
In a small town, particularly in the South, where small towns tend to be more racially diverse, you meet the face of “the other side” every day in familiar faces at the post office, the corner store, or on the street. There’s not enough of any of us to survive walled-off in homogeneous clusters. When our identity is first in Christ, we will find that the Lord unites us across lines where the world divides. The gospel is the only thing that has the power to heal our divisions.
The most obvious take-away from this election is that we must pray. Pray for Mr. Trump, pray for the newly elected Congress, and for your state and local governments. Many see the election results as a ray of light, others as a harbinger of certain doom.
Meanwhile, I can only work in the field God has given me here. But as this election proves, small towns can change the world.