Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Religious “Nones” and Social Decay in the Heartland | Righting America

by Zach Spidel

Zach Spidel is a minister with the Brethren in Christ Church and is currently serving as the pastor of two congregations in Dayton, Ohio, including The Shepherd’s Table – a church he led in planting on the city’s struggling east end. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and currently a student in the University of Dayton’s Ph.D. program in theology, Zach is an eclectic and ecumenical Anabaptist who aims in ministry and in scholarship to simply follow Jesus. 

In a recent post, this blog featured a map of the United States which illustrated the proportion of religious adherents across the country. Many features of that map confirm long-known features of America’s religious geography. But the map also includes some surprises. One of the biggest, perhaps, is the remarkable a-religiosity of a geographic region including southern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia. What’s going on here?

Image of a diagram of a percentage of the amount of people who are religious across the country with blue being least religious and brown being most religious.

Faithland map, 2018. Created by Alex Egoshin using data provided by the Association of Religion Data Archives.

I don’t know for sure, but as a pastor of two small congregations in southern Ohio, I have a couple thoughts to share on the matter.

First, I must say that from my vantage point (and this is necessarily anecdotal), this map is an accurate depiction of my area’s relative religiosity. A couple of summers ago, for instance, I was walking down a street in the neighborhood where I live and minister, when a boy of about ten ran down from the porch of an abandoned house to greet me. It was Sunday and my relatively dressy clothes made me stand out. I stopped to greet him, and the boy immediately asked me who I was and where I worked. When I explained that I was a pastor who worked at a church, he stared back confusedly. It turned out that this naturally bright and inquisitive ten-year-old did not know what either a pastor or a church was. The words were, perhaps, vaguely familiar, but essentially foreign to his lexicon.

I have met multiple others like this boy. Their stories are extreme, but telling. Most people around here at least know what a church is, but the vast majority of people don’t go to one and haven’t gone in a very long time (if they ever did). Nor do they have any regular religious practice.

And this brings me to the second thing I want to share. I live in a poor, urban, largely white neighborhood on Dayton’s East Side. Last I checked, the median household income here was around $22,000. I feel confident that number is too high – I know plenty of people who call this place home but live in abandoned or semi-abandoned homes with no utilities, or who sleep in alleys, or in copses of trees in the park, or who pay 10 bucks a night to sleep on a “friend’s” covered porch whenever they can scrounge that up. I know far too many people – some living, some dead – whose lives have been altered by the ongoing opioid epidemic.

My neighborhood is a poor place, ravaged by a breakdown in all traditional forms of community. And the church has not been exempted. Recently the Atlantic ran a piece on how hard it is to keep churches in poor communities open.

Here’s another story in this regard. In many other places today, generally irreligious people still find themselves under a religious roof for events such as weddings and funerals. But that is not so here. When a young woman I knew wandered (under the influence of heroin) into the street and was run over by a car, I asked her mother if she would let the church hold a funeral for her daughter – all the expenses covered by the church. Her mother was reluctant to say yes, because she felt it would be unfair. She had not had a funeral for her husband when he died, or for either of her other two dead children. In all three of those cases she’d merely collected their ashes from the morgue and taken them home, still in the morgue-provided boxes, to place their remains on top of a filing cabinet in her cramped dining room. She and her husband had been married in the court house, not a church. At none of these pivotal moments in her life, did this woman experience the warmth of Christian fellowship or any other traditional form of community.

It is worth noting that her daughter’s death, and much of the unhappiness in her family’s life over the years, involved drug abuse – especially opioids. Below is another map – this one a state-by-state account of opioid related deaths. Notice any overlap with the map above?

Image of the United States showing the death rate for each state with red being the highest and blue being the lowest.

Opioid Deaths in 2015. Map created by the Washington Post for the WonkBlog, December 13, 2016.

For multiple reasons, traditional centers of community are breaking down in neighborhoods like mine. I don’t know if economic, social, moral, or spiritual causes “came first” in this story of community breakdown – or if that question even makes sense. What I do feel confident about is that all four of those factors are involved and interwoven with one another today in perpetuating it. There is one sort of a-religiosity that exists amongst many of America’s cultural elite on the coasts. There is another that exists around here amongst those left behind in this new gilded age of ours, and it is emblematic of a deadly social decay.

Finally, let me leave you with a bit of hope. I moved to this neighborhood because I believe churches can help to turn the tide in places like this. However this breakdown started, I’m a Christian who believes Jesus can give rest to the weary, sight to the blind, and hope to those lost in darkness. In following him, I believe the church can be part of building up what has broken down.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
   with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
   and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
   he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
   and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
   like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
   and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
   Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. Isaiah 58: 9b-12