3 ways Christians can mend the political rural-suburban divide

November 2, 2020

In the truest sense of the word, I am a pilgrim. My pilgrimage began in the piney woods of East Texas, in a small, rural town which has yet to loosen its grip on some of the deepest parts of me. But it was a pilgrimage that led me away from “home,” a term I now use to describe my family’s suburban dwelling place, in a town not far from what we small-town-folk sometimes jeeringly call “the city.” In the span of my nearly 40 years, I have both inherited an identity and put on a new one; I am a “country boy” in “city boy” clothing. 

And though mine is not a unique journey, it has given me a perspective that I’ve found helpful for these perplexing times. Having lived in both worlds, having thought both worlds’ thoughts and shared both worlds’ values, I have experienced both sides of the “acute urban-rural polarization” that Emily Badger describes in her 2019 New York Times article. And I’m convinced that the balm needed to soothe these gaping divisions is not political but theological. 

These divided states

It is undeniable that we live in a divided America, fragmented in almost every way imaginable. This division has not spared the rural-sub/urban dynamic (sub/urban being a term that groups both suburban and urban communities together), but has widened its fissures further beyond just the miles that separate them. Though it has always been true to some extent, these two groups are typically worlds apart politically, culturally, and religiously, flashpoints that David French argues only exacerbate this widening geographical gap. 

For all our divisions and divergent points of view, what’s most alarming is not that they exist, but how we handle them. Increasingly, each group tends to view the other as a sort of “repugnant cultural other,” a term used by Susan Friend Harding, and referenced in Alan Jacobs’ How to Think, to describe our growing repulsion of others whose beliefs and ideas are inconsistent with our own. It is this “othering” of our neighbors, those near and far, that is so damaging and counterproductive, and so efficient at capitalizing on and worsening the rift between these groups and others. 

The rural “othering” of the sub/urban

In both groups, there is often a mutual suspicion of the other that tends to manifest itself in different ways. For example, among rural folk, when considering the persons and ideas represented in the sub/urban population, this suspicion bleeds out in the form of skepticism and cynicism, two attitudes rife with divisive potential. 

As it relates to this discussion, one problem with both cynicism and skepticism is that, at their root, they are attitudes of mistrust concerned primarily with the repugnant “otherness” of sub/urbanites and their ideas. While there may be ideological disagreements between the two groups, this is not typically where the mistrust begins. It begins well before an idea is even articulated. It begins by virtue of their being an “other.” 

The sub/urban “othering” of the rural

Likewise, the psyche of the country’s sub/urban communities toward their rural fellow Americans can be described as equally calloused. But rather than skepticism and cynicism being the culprits, there’s more often an attitude of superiority and assumed ignorance lobbed at those residing in “the country.” 

Generally, it may be assumed that because small, rural towns are typically less complex than, say, a large city, their residents must necessarily be equally simple-minded. Or maybe they simply lack access to the “enlightened” information one can garner in the large, cultural centers of our day. This false assumption, that enlightenment belongs to those living in the more populous corners of the country, often begets a subconscious feeling of superiority that manifests itself as a sort of head-patting paternalism or a disregard altogether of those living outside of the public square. Therefore, dialogue between these groups doesn’t often take place—they talk at or about each other, not to each other—because small town Americans are either discounted or ignored.

The result, in both directions, is a relationship devoid of trust. 

Tearing down the dividing wall of hostility

In this country, there are many walls, fashioned by human hands and hearts, that divide us, and none with more potent hostility than our political partitions. But the church is not meant to be a divided people. We are a family, after all. And, moreover, we are called to be an attractive family, known above all for our love. (John 13:35) So then, how are we to move forward in this cultural-political climate, walking not “according to the ways of this world” (Eph. 2:2) but according to the way of Christ? Here are a few things to keep in mind as we seek to bridge this gap. 

1. The imitation of Christ

In his recent book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund, discussing the gentleness of Jesus, says: “Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms.” This is our King, Jesus, “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). As his siblings and co-heirs, as his friends and disciples, the church is called—indeed, commanded—to walk in the way of Jesus.

Our speech and engagement, political or otherwise, are not to be formed by social media algorithms or strictly partisan news networks. We are to be formed by our King and his Word, by the community to which he’s called us, and by the ethic of his kingdom. 

What that means, at the very least, is that Christians are to submit ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus, we are to humble ourselves under his authoritative Word, and we are to embody the very charity that he, moment by moment, lavishes on us with overwhelming abundance. In other words, our speech and engagement, political or otherwise, are not to be formed by social media algorithms or strictly partisan news networks. We are to be formed by our King and his Word, by the community to which he’s called us, and by the ethic of his kingdom. 

2. Theologically-formed political engagement

In America, we’re all politicians. In the church, being a good politician requires being a good theologian.

There are many issues of policy in our form of government to which the Bible does not clearly or definitively speak, issues of prudential judgment, as they’re often called. Principled conclusions, in these cases, can be arrived at on either side of an issue with clear consciences. But, among Christians, the way that we practice our politics is not an issue of prudential judgment, it is a matter of clear-cut obedience to the Word of God. 

By definition, the term “repugnant cultural other” is anti-Christian, and to participate in the “othering” so endemic to our contemporary politics is anti-Christlike. Those who belong to different communities than us, whether rural or sub/urban or Democrat or Republican, are not “others,” they are “fellows”—fellow persons, fellow image-bearers. 

As Christians who believe the doctrine of the imago Dei, we, of all people, should be those whose “speech is always gracious, seasoned with salt,” (Col. 4:6) as Paul instructs us. Therefore, even our words—how we speak to and about persons—are to be submitted to the Lordship of the King, ensuring that every word leaving our lips abides by the life-giving ethic of his kingdom. This doesn’t mean we never critique. It means simply that when we do, we do so with humility, gentleness, and respect (1 Pet. 3:16). 

3. Scripture-soaked engagement

Starting with Scripture is how our theology forms our political engagement. We soak our conscience, our imagination, our conception of reality, our ethic—indeed, our whole selves—in the all-sufficient word of God, and then, by the Spirit, we bring all that to bear on the way that we ourselves participate in the political process. And then we do it again, day by day, not with a pointing finger and hateful tongue, by the habit of “othering,” but in the neighbor-loving way of Jesus our King.  

More fundamentally than the “country” and “city” identities that many of us have exchanged in our lives, we Christians have undergone an identity transformation as well; we are those who’ve been raised with Christ from the dead. May the new life pumping through our veins, therefore, and the Spirit residing in our hearts animate all our political engagement.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24