A deadly crisis in rural America

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Friday, May 13, 2016, at 1:26 pm

Suicide is on the rise among middle-aged whites in the United States. Comparing data from the 1990 and 2010 censuses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the suicide rate for white women increased 41.9 percent, while the rate for white men increased 39.6 percent during that span. With the exception of Native Americans, the suicide rate among racial minorities during that same time period remained relatively unchanged or declined, as was the case with African-American males.

The National Center for Health Statistics recently released a study reporting that the suicide rate for women between the age of 45 and 64 skyrocketed by 63 percent between 1999 and 2014, while it increased by 43 percent for men in that same age group. The study noted that the overall national suicide rate was up by 24 percent during that decade and a half.

These spikes indicate a crisis

In rural areas and small towns, what we think of as “Trump Country,” there is pathological hopelessness. For example, rural white women in their late 40s are dying at a higher rate than any group of women in America. A recent statistical analysis by The Washington Post shows that from 1990 through 2014, the death rate for white women rose by more than 40 percent in rural areas of the country—in some places the rate doubled. Researchers point to drug and alcohol abuse as the main culprits. Rural Indiana is currently in the midst of an HIV-infection outbreak connected with the state’s drug-abuse crisis. Serial drug and alcohol abuse are not only actions of sin, but are also real signs of ongoing emotional, psychological, and spiritual distress.

The fact that the greatest early death and suicide risks are found in states primarily populated by people living in small towns and rural areas raises several questions: Why does there seem to be so much hopelessness, despair, and depression in small town America? Do conservative Protestants care? Have we traded off reaching hurting people with redemptive healing and hope for influence and power in places where Christians can have an “impact” and “influence the culture?”

I certainly do not have all the answers, but it seems that something has gone terribly wrong in the evangelical world. Why are evangelicals more excited about planting churches and missions in “alpha cities” among artists, creatives, and professionals rather than the rural areas where people are suffering? Why are rural issues seen as less important than the plight of inner-city residents or the issue of racial reconciliation?

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, persuaded an entire generation of evangelicals to care about cities, which is admirable, but where are the leaders who care about the other places where people are dying of hopelessness? If Christians really believe that true hope can be found in the church, then rural areas and small towns must be as equally important to us as anywhere else.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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