I sat on a chilly metal bench at the airport overlook – a small park next to Charlotte-Douglas International that offers a great view of one of the runways. In the distance stands the skyline with tiny little cranes moving back and forth over a new skyscraper going up. With head tilted to one side and arm outstretched, I see if it has yet grown larger than my thumb. As the planes come in, I stretch out my arm and try to pinch them between my index finger and thumb, increasing in size until they are too large to fit in my open palm. This one is the daily flight from Munich, Germany. I often come here to do my thinking. I’ve lived in the heart of the city for several years now, after spending almost my entire life in a rural town an hour or so away. It is just days before the election and the biggest thing on my mind is the rift between perceived “small town values” and “big city values.”
The Republican National Convention had speaker after speaker who espoused the greatness of small town values in "real America." The Daily Show had aired a segment asking “What are these small town values?” Now North Carolina had become the latest battle ground over what is “real America.” Sarah Palin, speaking at a rally outside Greensboro, North Carolina, said “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.” Palin nor McCain ever dared to set foot in Charlotte, instead holding a rally outside the city alone a rural stretch of Highway 49. It was here that, before McCain spoke, House Representative Robin Hayes said “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God,” a comment he denied making until an audio recording proved otherwise.
I thought back to the summer days of my youth. My father would lift me into the air with his large hands, worn and calloused from many years spent in the local steel mill. His right ring finger half as long as the others, a permanent reminder of his Marine Corp tours in Vietnam. We would spend many summer afternoons in our back yard K-mart kiddy pool. My father was transferred from the steel plant in his boyhood hometown in Alabama when I was still too young to remember. He worked hard to make an honest living for my mother, my sister, and me. My mother worked part time in the local school system driving a bus and serving in the cafeteria. They were always active in my school and church, coaching my T-ball team or leading the children’s ministry with puppets. These were what I leaned were small town values; hard work, honesty, honoring your family, love of God, and love of country.
It is very hard to spot – only after years away from small towns, and from the outside looking in, that I can see the cracks in the so-called “small town values.” There is a great deal of politeness on the surface in rural areas, but it is only skin deep. You're okay as long as you look like everyone else, they think you are a good Christian, and aren't gay or something. Once you get past superficial politeness you'll be shocked at the fear and hate boiling under the surface. Some of it erupted during the election with angry mobs of Republican supporters.
Fear is what drives life in small towns. Fear of change. Fear of a shifting power structure. Fear of something or somebody different. It stems from an “us versus them” mentality and an oversimplification of everything as being either “good” or “evil.” There is no room for gray. Christians, especially, are taught that the world is out to get them – to destroy their country, their community, and their values. Power hungry politicians and pastors (with an increasingly blurred like between the two) demonize those who are different as a method to keep their followers in check. “The gays want to destroy our families, the Mexicans are stealing our jobs, and the blacks steal all the welfare money.” There is no room at the table for opposing views or independent thought. In their minds, good Christian folk are being persecuted. Cable news commentators, and my former pastor, told me the 1950’s were the greatest time in our nation’s history. When I hear that today I’m shocked. After all, in the 1950’s segregation was in full force, Jim Crow laws were in effect, and the glass ceiling was as high and firm as ever.
Along with fear, stereotypes drive small town perceptions of “outsiders.” In small towns, residents tend to lump people into large groups. You have your whites and blacks, all Latinos are labeled as Mexicans, and Asians are Chinese, and then there are those of “terrorist descent.” When you don’t know somebody outside of stereotypes, it is nearly impossible to care about them, and very easy to become wary of them. The small town is the comfort zone for those who fear the poor or foreign. Shane Claiborne said in The Irresistible Revolution, “I asked participants who claimed to be "strong followers of Jesus" whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”
Small town America is stubborn and slow to accept progress and grant equality and liberty to all. Living in mostly segregated, rural areas breeds bigotry, racism, xenophobia, a general disregard for the poor and needy, and disdain for people and beliefs other than your own. Small-town-mindedness encourages anti-intellectualism, jingoism, and blind devotion to religion and government (which have an increasingly blurred line between the two). In addition, small town bigotry shifts over time. While segregation was a sacred institution in rural towns for most of this country’s history, many rural residents now take pride in how they “aren’t racist” and even have a token black friend to prove it. In 1968 the battle cry was “Protect the sanctity of marriage; no interracial marriage.” In 2008 it had evolved into “Protect the sanctity of marriage; no gay marriage.” I often hear stories of people from small towns who leave for college. At first they have a prejudice against gays or Muslims or some other group. Maybe their pastor preached on the evils of homosexuality. They believe it, until they actually befriend a gay person. Then they learn to judge their new friend by their character, and not the stereotype hung around their neck by a small minded pastor.
I’ve come to love the city so much that I could never imagine going back to a rural town. There is a great community in the city, an exchange of ideas where everybody has a place at the table. I’ve learned that people that are different than me aren’t the enemy. We’re all different, and that’s what makes us great. Once you get to know people, the stereotypes learned in the small towns are washed away. Eventually, we can stop labeling people all together, and accept them as individuals. It took some time - several years - after initially moving into the city before I realized I had become a liberal. I had come to cherish several important big city values; tolerance, peace, equality, justice, and a desire to treat others as I would want to be treated. I didn’t care about gays until I made gay friends. I didn’t care about the poor until I knew them and, in a way, joined them.
The morning after the election I drove though the small town of my youth. I’d often seen a Confederate flag flying on a pole along the highway just outside of town, but that day it was lowered to half mast. I mentioned it to a friend in Raleigh. “The Confederate flags are flying at half mast in the South today, haha,” he later responded. “Thanks for that joke; I’ve been telling it all morning!” Except, it wasn’t a joke.