From My Thesis: Melancholia

As noted earlier, this specific nexus of white working-class people is often dismissed by those on both the right and left – politically and in the church as well- as worthy of time and attention, both because of their abhorrent political expressions and their waning utilitarian merit in terms of electoral power and economic output. This attitude towards rural white working-class people often leads to an attitude that they simply aren’t worth the time or the effort. In the church, this attitude is reflected because of the decline of congregational populations, and the subsequent decline of financial support in these communities. They become a group that is not politically, financially, morally or demographically worth the time of the rest of the country. They are, for lack of a better term, collateral damage for the shoring up of structures of civil and religious power in America.

But, for a church committed to a theological anthropology centered on the Imago Dei present in each human being, no one can be classified as collateral. And, for a society that wanted to believe it had a handle on the social and cultural divides that have long plagued the nation, 2016 showed that classifying this group as collateral and consigning them to the dustbin is not a viable option either. There is political and cultural power in the white working class still, despite (and, most likely, because of) their declining numbers. But beyond the utilitarian arguments around electoral and financial power for reaching out to this group of disaffected Americans, the church also needs to remind itself that when it claims to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it must include all – even those whose political and social attitudes are found repugnant. They cannot be left aside; otherwise, they become easy fodder for prosperity preachers, politically-aligned evangelical conservatives, and the Radical Right.

Simply writing off rural working-class whites is how that demographic is where it is at now: poverty-stricken, afflicted by addiction, mental health issues, substance abuse, violence and suicide; politically and socially resentful of other whites, of minorities, of sexual minorities, of foreigners and immigrants; and susceptible to the political machinations of people like Donald Trump and his religious servants – the Court Evangelicals, as John Fea has so accurately dubbed them.[1] At the point they begin voting in mass for politicians like Trump, and supporting movements like white supremacy and Neo-Nazis, their power becomes readily apparent, and their problems become the problems of everyone. When the white working class pushes Donald Trump to the presidency on a wave of nativism, xenophobia, and raw anger, it becomes incumbent on the rest of America to try to understand why and try to figure out a constructive way forward, because it is actively harming the world. As United Methodist theologian Tex Sample writes, “That the white working-class members do not dominate the American demographic profile as they once did is clear, but to dismiss them as a powerful force in this society is a blunder of major proportions.”[2]

But the answers cannot be purely political; the church must also look for answers. The anger and sense of dislocation and loss emanating from white working-class America is a spiritual malaise as much as it is a political and economic one – if not more so. By spiritual malaise, what I mean is a metaphysical sense of loss and dislocation, a deep and profound melancholy, in the sense expounded by Kate Manne is a recent essay. She writes, “melancholia involves a loss which is resisted rather than fully acknowledged.”[3] This melancholy is experienced in white working-class communities as the sense that the world around them is changing – and it is change they are not ready for, and even actively working against. It is changing in a way that feels like an unnatural exacerbation of the natural feeling of loss in the progress of time, and thus something that must be actively worked against.

It is not because of active hate towards those benefiting, in their view, from this change that they work against this new world, however. Melancholia is not something experienced as quite so other-oriented. Rather, it is a grasping after a past – real or imagined – that the melancholic person is feeling like they are losing. Oftentimes, it is nearly impossible for her to name the perpetrator of that loss definitively. Manne goes on, “The melancholic person is hence in a kind of limbo – consigned to a state of perpetually losing. She hence cannot let go, and is forever at a loss – and at a loss to name the source of her sadness and ambivalence.”[4]

This melancholy, while not other-oriented in origin, becomes so in expression. The melancholic person’s loss is partially felt as a sense of not being heard, and thus they feel they must make themselves heard. Manne draws on Freud when she calls it a “noisy self-abasement – the expression of an inward stripping away of the ego.”[5] This noisy self-abasement is on full display at, for instance, a Trump campaign rally, characterized as it so often is by scenes of inconceivably angry white people. This is the sound of a melancholic people who feel the only recourse they have for what they are feeling and experiencing will come in the political realm.

[1] John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 99.

[2] Tex Sample, Working Class Rage, 23.

[3] Kate Manne, ”Melancholy Whiteness (Or, Shame-Faced in Shadows),“ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research XCVI:1 (January 2018), 239.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

 

 

 

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