Free People and Their Money

A couple weeks ago, I preached the first sermon in a series about money at our church. Unfortunately, our recording only captured the first 15 minutes or so of the message. You can listen to that here. For the rest of the message, you can read the manuscript below.

NOTE: I was being translated into Spanish as I went, and I outran my translator a time or two. You’ll hear the change in rhythm as I tried to slow down. :)


When Robert and Omar invited me to preach I was of course honored.

And then Robert asked me, “Do you want to preach on sex or money?” which is like being asked if you’d rather be shot or stabbed.

So here we are.

My family and I have been blessed to worship here at Church of the Heights for nearly a year. And we’ve learned a lot.

We’ve learned:

  • that hips can be used in worship

  • that one of the great challenges of multiethnic ministry is we can’t decide which beat to clap on.

One of the most helpful things we’ve learned since we arrived in New York was from Johnny Acevedo’s sermon on Jeremiah 29. He introduced that passage by explaining that in a city like this one, some are here for opportunity and some are here because of trauma. He reminded us that in a congregation like ours, people who are here because of opportunity and people who are here because of trauma can sit beside each other on a Sunday morning.

This is no small thing. America is divided in a number of ways—urban v. rural; majority v. minority; and by class, economics. One pastor of a multiethnic church told me that learning to love one another across ethnic division is easier than learning to love one another across socio-economic division.

And here we are, a family made up of different ethnicities and vocations. People here because of opportunity and people here because of trauma.

We’re starting a three-week series on the topic of money this morning. As different as we are, in my observation, there are two kinds of people who worry about money: those who have some and those who don’t. Surely we all fit into one of those categories.

If there’s a single theme for the whole series, it’s that money is good—like sex. God is pro-sex and he is pro-money. The issue is how we use it, it’s status is our lives, whether we’re stewarding it the right way. So this series is money positive. Hopefully the series will encourage and challenge all of us, no matter what our perspective is.

Our passage this morning is kind of an odd one to start with. It’s not immediately obvious that this passage is about money. But it’s a good place to start the series, because it makes us think about what’s first in our lives. It makes us think about where we get our identity and our security. And I hope it will cast a vision for a uniquely Christian view of money.

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)

Literary Context of Exodus 20

If you know anything about the Bible, you likely know about this section of the Bible. These are the Ten Commandments. You may not know what they are, but you know there are ten of them.  

  • We’re picking up in the middle of the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible.

  • At the end of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God provides for his people during a famine by making sure they have property in the fertile land of Egypt. They not only survive there, but they thrive and are fruitful and multiply.

  • At the beginning of Exodus, some time has passed and Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, panics because this big immigrant population is out-reproducing the Egyptians and he’s nervous they’re going to take over. So he enslaves them.

  • People cry out. God hears. God raises up Moses to deliver the people. 

  • Chapters 2-15 are about Moses and how God works wonders to deliver the people from slavery.

  • Chapters 16-19 are some scenes about adjusting to life in the free world. It’s a bumpy start, but God continues to bless and lead the people.

Our passage today, Exodus 20, begins a section that runs through the entire book of Exodus and all of Leviticus—the Law (Torah). Then it’s repeated in Deuteronomy. The purpose of these books is to tell the people of Israel how they ought to live now. It gets very specific in places. The first verse—“And God spoke all these words refers to everything from here through Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

And there’s a promise attached to all these words God spoke. In Deuteronomy 15, God makes this promise:

“There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and follow all the commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)

What we’re looking at today are the opening lines to this long, specific book of laws that come with a promise. If you obey all these words, there should be no poor people among you. He’s got my attention.

20:2 — “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Verse two is a short summary of that history we just covered. But it’s more than that. It also frames everything that follows in terms of what God has already done. God wants the Israelites to hear all the Law that follows with this framework in mind: yesterday they were slaves. Today they are free. All these words He’s about to tell them are instructions about how to live as free people. They don’t know how to live as free people. They’ve been slaves for generations. God has delivered them. But they won’t stay free by just living however they want. That’s really important. The Law isn’t just good advice. It’s how to live free.

God reminds them of this by starting with their identity. He is their God. That’s his identity. They are his people. That’s their identity. He wants them to be free. To be free, they have to be obedient. Ultimately he wants that obedience to flow from a sense of gratitude for what he’s done and from a sense of identity as his people.

This foreshadows the gospel of Jesus: God delivered first and then he gave the people instructions. He didn’t come to them in Egypt and say, “Here are my commandments. If you follow them, I’ll rescue you from slavery.” No. First he rescued the people without requiring anything from them. Then he said, “Now that you’re free, let me tell you how to live as free people.” As we’ll see, if the people don’t do what the Law says, they end up enslaved again. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point here is that there is a pattern that starts here and runs through the whole Bible: God always saves before he commands. Obedience always follows salvation.

So God sets it up by saying, “As you listen to everything I have to say, remember: I delivered you.” In response to that deliverance:

20:3 — “You shall have no other gods before me.”

This commandment is worded carefully. “Before me” literally means, “in my face.” Some translations say, “You shall have no other gods beside me.” The mental image is like there’s a shelf in Israel’s bedroom with one god—Yahweh—on it. And God is saying, “Don’t add any other gods to that shelf.”

That is, he’s not saying don’t “replace” me with a new god. He’s saying don’t “supplement” me with an additional god. It means you and I are in relationship and you can’t introduce another god into that relationship, so that it’s in my face.

Then he gets really specific:

20:4 — “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

God is being thorough. He’s saying, don’t make a statue (“image”) in the shape of any sort of animal that lives anywhere: in the sky, on land, in the water. That’s all the places.

This explanation feels like overkill. But you do this if you’re a parent (or you’ve heard it if you have a parent). With our children sometimes we get specific. We say, “Only color on your paper.” Then we add, “When I say only color on your paper, I mean don’t color on the table or on the wall or on your brother. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

God is getting specific like that.

And it seems like an odd place to get specific, because if we read this passage from our modern point of view, this command feels really easy to keep. There are a couple commandments further down the list that you could break on accident. “Don’t covet,” for example. Coveting is something you can accidentally do. You can catch yourself daydreaming about living in your friend’s apartment—the one with the view (you have the dumpster view). And you realize after a minute, “Shoot, I’m coveting. My bad.” Or maybe “honor your father and mother.” There are plenty of times I’ve been really rude to my parents and didn’t realize it until later. I realize, “Shoot, I didn’t honor my parents. My bad.”

But I have never accidentally slipped into polytheism. I’ve never thought, “Shoot, I’m carving statues of other gods. My bad.”

So practically speaking it seems like an easy commandment to keep. Why does God have to get so specific?

Historical Context

The reason is because for 400 years, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. And in Egypt, like in all the other nations on the planet at the time, everybody worshipped lots of gods. They had different names in different places: the Egyptians and Canaanites and everyone else called their gods by different names. But every people group had very similar gods—gods who ensured a good harvest. God who ensured the fertility of people and animals. Gods who sent rain—but not too much rain. Gods who secured victory in war. And you had to worship multiple gods because each of them had a specific job. If you wanted your crops to grow, you had to worship the fertility god. But he couldn’t help you in battle. If you wanted to win in battle, you had to worship the god of war. Sometimes worshipping these gods required you to do terrible things. Baal, a fertility god in Canaan, required human sacrifice. But some people thought it was worth it. Better safe than sorry.

During their time in Egypt, the Israelites had been deeply conditioned by their cultural context. They had deeply ingrained habits. For ten generations—that’s longer than there have been Europeans in America—they had been deriving their identity and security from worshipping other gods. They had picked up values and ways of believing and behaving from the Egyptians who enslaved them. They weren’t just going to change all their habits overnight. There’s a saying in rural places: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” God has taken the Israelites out of Egypt. It’s going to take a while to get the Egypt out of the Israelites.

And God knew this. He knew that the people who just came out of Egypt weren’t going to be tempted to abandon him and worship other gods altogether. He would always be their god of deliverance—maybe their war god. But he knew they would be tempted to look for other gods in addition to Him. He knew they would be tempted to worship other gods to hedge their bets. Maybe now that they live in the desert, they need a desert god (Egypt had one of those) or a god of traveling.

I’m not just speculating here. Moses and God chat on the mountain for a long time—all of chapters 20 to 31. Then in Exodus 32, Moses goes down the hill to share all this information with the rest of the Israelites and when he gets there, they’ve already broken the first commandment. 

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’

            Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 32:1-4)

This golden calf was not a random innovation. They had the idea for a golden calf, because that was a popular image in Egypt. Hathor, a goddess represented as a cow, was the goddess of dancing and song, she was the “wife” of the high god, Ra. And she was the protector of travelers in foreign lands. As soon as the excitement of being delivered from slavery wore off, they fell back into the deeply ingrained cultural habits that they picked up in Egypt. They decided they needed a goddess in addition to God. The next verse makes this clear: When Aaron say this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow their will be a festival to the LORD” (32:5). They planned to worship both God and this new idol they made. They literally made an idol to place beside God.

You’re saying—I thought this sermon was about money. It is. Here’s the connection.

Coming to the Point

We are conditioned in America to think of money the same way the Israelites thought of other gods.

  • In America, money is a source of identity and security. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system. It can easily become a worldview—a way of viewing everything.

  • Consumerism intentionally produces desire and insecurities and tells us that the only way we can fulfill those desires or finally be secure is to have more money.

  • All our best financial advice is geared toward alleviating insecurity (something terrible may happen: be prepared; don’t be a burden on your children, etc.)

  • What we call the American Dream is really a promise: that if we all work hard and save carefully and invest wisely, we can all be rich.

  • This promise is so seductive that some Christians baptize it and what we get is the prosperity gospel, which essentially says, “God wants you to have the American Dream, and if you have it that’s a sign God loves you.”

  • We aren’t tempted to serve money instead of God. But we can find ourselves trusting in money in addition to God for our identity and our security.

You might say, “Hang on a minute. There are some good principles for wise financial management—like saving a percentage of your income and not being in debt—that come straight from the Bible.” Absolutely. I’m not saying we get everything wrong. I’m not suggesting that you be unwise with your money.

I’m saying we should all examine our hearts and ask:

  • Do I say I trust God, but really look for my identity and security in money?

  • Do I derive my value from how much (or how little) I earn?

  • Do I resist being generous because I’m scared I won’t have enough?

  • If I’m honest, are my behaviors and attitudes about money the behaviors and attitudes of a free person or am I living like a slave?

No one has the corner on this. You can be living like a slave if you’re burdened with debt. You can be living like a slave because you have lots of money and you’re afraid to spend it. We can be living like slaves if our financial goals—whatever they are—are more important than our walk with Jesus. It is absolutely possible to take a good biblical principle and turn it into an idol. Even if the idol is a good principle, it can still make you a slave.

If God wants us to live like free people in regards to money, you’d expect him to tell us how to do that, right? He does.

The first few commandments in Exodus 20 are about loving God: don’t have any other gods; don’t make idols; don’t misuse God’s name; remember the Sabbath. The rest of them are about loving your neighbor: honor your parents; don’t murder; don’t commit adultery or steal or give false testimony; don’t covet.

These are the bullet points of the Law. If you find yourself with a few free hours and think, I’d really love to read Leviticus, you can bet sure that whatever strange law you run across will in someway be telling you how to keep one of these ten commandments.

What you find when you start to explore these laws about how free people love God and their neighbor, it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that a lot of what it means to love God and love your neighbor has financial implications:

  • Loving God

    • Sabbath—no work = no pay

    • First fruits—don’t eat or sell first produce; give it to God

    • Tithe—after you’ve given your first to God, you give a percentage of total to God

    • Other voluntary offerings—additional giving out of gratitude

  • Loving Neighbor

    • Lending freely, charging no interest

    • Jubilee—forgiving debt and returning property (i.e., no one is bound by debt forever)

    • Not gleaning to edges of the field—not maximizing profits to the exclusion of the poor

    • Pay on the day the work is done

 Loving God and loving your neighbor, according to the Law, is expensive! And yet God promises, if we do it there should be no poor among you.

It’s important to catch what God is promising.

The American promise is, we can all be wealthy—the need not be any poor among us—if we all just work hard and save and invest wisely and no one is a burden on society. The emphasis is individual prosperity and the means is careful attention to your own situation.

God’s promise is, You can be a community that eliminates glaring financial equality if you only love God and love your neighbor the way I’ve commanded you to do it. The emphasis is not on individual prosperity but on corporate prosperity.

This text says, If you start right and derive your identity and your security from God and not from additional gods, including money, you will be free to serve God and love your neighbor the way God intended. If you do that, your community will be marked by economic equality that mirrors the spiritual equality you share as my children.

Holy smokes. Is anybody excited by this vision?  

Reality Check 

It’s important to point out here that in the same chapter where God says you should not have any poor among you, he also recognizes that there’s a gap between his ideal and the reality.

“There will always be poor people in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11) 

Catch that. You shouldn’t have any poor among you (verse 4). You will always have poor among you (verse 11).

The Israelites never actually achieved the ideal that God set out. And the reason they failed is because they never got the First Commandment right. In almost every book of the Bible after this, God has to remind the people not to hedge their bets with other gods. They never learned to derive their identity and security from God. All through the Old Testament they broke the first commandment. They constantly followed other gods. Constantly. And because they never loved God the right way, they never loved their neighbor the right way. They never lived as free people in relationship with God. They came out of Egypt and then, all the way through the Bible, they lived as slaves to other gods and other nations. 

The Old Testament prophets accused Israel of two crimes: idolatry and injustice. They go together. If you don’t get your identity and security from God, you’ll get it in ways at someone else’s expense.

How depressing.

Except that’s not the whole story. There was a group of people in the Bible that did just what God commands here. They eliminated all other competing gods and fixed their eyes on the one true God. They found their identity and security in God and it freed them to live as free people.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. (Acts 4:32-34)

Catch that last phrase: there were no needy persons among them. It’s the exact same phrase as the promise in Deuteronomy.

And the really remarkable thing is, they didn’t do it by keeping the Law. It doesn’t say, And all the people bore down hard and were obedient and there were no needy persons. It says, “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all…”

It’s tempting to think that the vision God gives us of a free people living like free people is impossible now. It’s easy to think the Law was building a nation from scratch. If you do it right from the beginning, it can work. But this is 21st century America. Christians can’t have their own banks. We have to work within the system.

The earliest Christians in Acts 4 worked with the system. In a system that was far more unjust and oppressive than ours—the Roman Empire—they were a counterculture marked by grace. And that grace created a real dynamic difference—a community of faith in which there were no needy persons.

For 300 hundred years after the book of Acts, the Empire recognized the difference in the way Christians lived. An emperor named Julian started building hospitals and homeless shelters and distributing food to Roman citizens. Rome never did anything like that before. Why did they start? Because Christians were putting them to shame!

One official believed it was “the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle” that did the most to spread Christianity across the empire. He said, “For it is disgraceful when … the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

The way to correct the situation was to get Romans to start behaving like Christians in economic terms: “Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods.” 

Of course Rome’s project didn’t work, because they were trying to keep a law. The Christians were motivated by grace.

Blessings and Curses

This is as good a place as any to talk about the rest of verse 5 and 6:

for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

These are uncomfortable words. I’m a father. I don’t want my children to suffer on account of my misbehavior. Also I have a father. I don’t want to suffer because of his misbehavior. What’s going on here?

Two things:

First, God is talking, in part, about the natural consequences of disobedience/obedience. If you teach your children to find identity and security in idols, it may take a few generations for that impulse to work out. The book of Judges is a great place to see verse 5 play out in Israel’s history. One generation teaches the next to worship other gods, to hedge their bets, and the consequences are multigenerational.

Second, the emphasis falls on grace. Notice the disparity. There are brief consequences for disobedience (4 generations max). There are long benefits for obedience (1,000 generations) for obedience. As always with God, the promise is greater than the curse.

Grace is an important place to end. Because the life of freedom we’ve been talking about is only possible by God’s grace. The grace of Jesus empowers us to put our hope in the one True God, to find our identity and security in him. Only then can we live like free people with our money.

About Trying to Stop Controlling the Hard Conversations

Only after we'd snuggled into bed to read it did I realize the book we chose was about Jackie Robinson. We picked it out in a hurry because our four-year-old was unshelving books at a remarkable rate and I wanted to get out of the library before we were banned for life.

The book was called A Big Day for Baseball. The first couple of chapters were fine. But eventually the story detailed how black fans and white fans sat in different sections of a baseball stadium. Soon the black fans were cheering for an unnamed player on the field, while white fans were yelling, "Get him out of here! Go back where you came from!" The book presented, as a matter of fact, that there was a time in our nation's history—not all that long ago—when black people were barred access to things white people were able to do.

This was not a matter of fact to the six-year-old to whom I was reading—my son, who is African-American. Now, without warning, it was up to me to explain it to him.

"Do you know what it means when the book says 'black fans' and 'white fans'?" I asked. "Do you know what 'black' and 'white' means?" We've had these discussions before, of course, but we've never encountered the language in a book in just this way.

He nodded. "Does it mean black skin and white skin?" 

"Yeah. Do you know anybody with white skin?"

"You," he said. "And Mama."

"That's right," I said. "Do you know anybody with black skin?"

He thought a minute and listed a couple of his friends from school and church: "Isaiah kind of has black skin," he said. "And Max, a little."  

"What about you?" I asked. Inside I was asking, Am I doing this right?

"No," he said. "My skin is brown." 

"That's true," I said. "Some people might say your skin is black, too, like Isaiah's and Max's." 

He nodded. 

"Do you know why the black fans and the white fans had to sit in different places in the stadium?"

He shook his head.

"Because there was a time in America when people who had skin like yours weren't allowed to do things and go places that people with skin like mine were allowed to do." 

"Really!" His eyes widened in surprise. "Like what?"

"Like play on a major league baseball team. Or even watch a baseball game from the same seats as white people." I didn't know what I would say if he asked,Why not? So I waited. I asked him if he had any questions about what I just told him. He said no and twirled his hair around his finger. He twirls his hair when he's nervous.

In that moment I grieved the Otherness between us. What a terrible thing for a father to have to tell his son—that people who look like me have treated (and continue to treat—a topic for another day) people who look like you in unthinkable ways. 

That moment also reminded me what every parent learns at some point: that we don't always get to choose when we have tough conversations. The hardest topics come up out of nowhere, without warning, without preparation.

But there’s another layer to the hard conversations that I’m recognizing more and more these days. I realize now that it is a sign of my white privilege that I assume I get to choose when to talk about the hard topic of race relations. Not just with my kids, either, but always. If I'm honest, I assume I should be able to choose the timing and the tone and the terms of the conversation. This is a sign of privilege because, for me—as invested as I am in the conversation—there may be at any time something more pressing on my mind. I'll deal with this issue when I want (later), how I want (calmly and dispassionately), where I want (probably over coffee).

What gives me the right to decide that right now is the wrong time and loudly and passionately is the wrong tone and here on the street in front of God and everyone is the wrong place?

My privilege gives me that right. Being a parent doesn’t. Being a good neighbor doesn’t.

To all who deserve an apology, I am sorry that I take advantage of that privilege. Let's talk—whenever and however you like.

A (Nearly) Hometown Interview about Demanding Liberty

“Are we losing religious liberty in America? Have we ever had it as completely as we feel like we did? Was there a golden age for religious liberty in the past that we need to get back to?”

I really enjoyed this interview with Clark Matthews at KNEO (91.7FM) in Southwest Missouri. This is the closest I’ve been to an interview about one of my books in my hometown. The station is just north of the Arkansa border—one county north of my old stomping grounds.

Listen here.

White Trash: A Book Review—Plus A Little about Tonya Harding

White Trash.jpg

We watched I, Tonya (the movie about figure skater Tonya Harding) on the weekend I finished reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America (Penguin, 2016). Whether the movie is accurate or not, I don’t know. But it illustrated the central theme of Isenberg’s book: the idea that America is a classless society where people get ahead based solely on their talent and hard work is a myth. 

In the last year or so, there’s been renewed interest in the Harding/Kerrigan incident, and a common theme is that Tonya Harding was a great skater who didn’t fit the upper class image of figure skating. She was white trash in a white-collar sport. And because she didn’t wear the right outfits or skate to the right music or have the right manners, she consistently lost out to inferior skaters. In other words, she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and that meant more than her skill. 

Nancy Isenberg argues in White Trash that things have always been this way, that while Americans like the idea of America as the place where “ordinary folks seized opportunity” by breaking the class distinctions of England, in fact America’s founders were committed to clear class distinctions based on birth and “breeding.” 

The focus of her book are the white folks at the bottom of the class ladder, folks who were known through the centuries as “waste people,” refuse, crackers, clay eaters, mudsills, white trash, the feculum (feces) of America (and more)—the “wretched and landless poor.” 

Her argument is arranged in three parts: 

The Very Short Version

  • Part 1 covers the first English settlements in America through the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), the country’s first “white trash” president. 
  • Part 2 runs the century from the Civil War to the middle of the 20thcentury, a period in which “waste people” become useful (but not valued) as a political bloc. 
  • Part 3 covers the rise of redneck pride from the 1970s or so through the present, in which some adopted the terminology of redneck or white trash as a self-designation. Culturally, these folks gained some clout but remained largely feared and/or despised by the broader culture. 

The Longer Version (if you don’t care about this, skip to the next section)

Four hundred years worth of history is a lot to summarize, so I’ve tried to hit the highlights. 

In part one, Isenberg shows that the private writings (and sometimes public statements) of some of our founding heroes (Locke, Franklin, Jefferson among them) show that democracy for all was never the plan. Only white people were included in the commitment to “liberty and justice for all”—and not all white people, either. The poorest white folks were excluded, along with African slaves and their descendants. 

Isenberg claims the value of poor whites was limited to their productivity in America’s first century or so, whether in homes (as servants), in boosting the population (as breeders), or in industry (as cheap labor). Some English prospectors envisioned America as “one giant workhouse” where “the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.” The “criminal class” (i.e., the jobless poor) could be shipped to America and put to work in factories. 

Like black slaves and their descendants, poor whites were at times considered “chattel.” The children of servants could be passed down as property in their masters’ wills. Poor women (including prostitutes) were shipped to America as breeders to increase the working population. To justify treating white people this way, elites determined that poor people were naturally deficient—by blood—which meant that if they weren’t a separate raceof human, they were certainly an inferior breed. They were born either to commit crimes or be put to work. Might as well put them to work.

Perceptions of poor whites became more complicated over the course of a century. The “frontiersman”—the poor log cabin squatter on the edge of civilization—morphed into a mythical American role model who “embodied the best and worst of the American character.” 

In his most favorable cast as backwoodsman, he was a homespun philosopher, an independent spirit, and a strong and courageous man who shunned fame and wealth. But turn him over and he became the white savage, a ruthless brawler and eye-gouger. This unwholesome type lived a brute existence in a dingy log cabin, with yelping dogs at his heels, a haggard wife, and a mongrel brood of brown and yellow brats to complete the sorry scene (107). 

The power of this group became clear when, near the mid 19thcentury (and eventually armed with the vote), frontiersmen helped elect Andrew Jackson president. Jackson had been a squatter and even as president remained a crude, violent, and unrefined “cracker” who violated the rules of polite politics. Though he elevated the importance of the rural poor, he didn’t advocate for the rights of poor whites in his policies. He used them, but he didn’t help them. Even so, after his presidency, the poor white rustic had to be wooed in his own language if you wanted his vote.

While there was white trash everywhere, the breed was increasingly associated with southern slave states. In part two, the Isenberg argues that white elites in the South leveraged poor whites to drum up support for secession. Southern leaders before the Civil War criticized the North for debasing poor whites by making them do menial labor. The south had used blacks instead of debasing whites. In this way, Southern elites made poor whites “white” for political purposes. That is, instead of emphasizing the differences between well-bred whites and poor whites, they emphasized the differences between poor whites and black slaves. Still, the southern elites who stood to benefit most from the war sent poor whites to fight for them, reinforcing the old class distinctions.

Fast forward a couple generations and rising unemployment during the Depression resulted in huge populations of poor whites. It also forced some to recognize that poverty was an economic reality, not a genetic one. Efforts to lift the poor showed that a change of circumstance could (often) address the problem. Maybe poverty wasn’t “in their blood” after all.

By the 1960s, TV shows like The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies illustrated America’s mixed opinion of poor (and rural) whites. Some, like Sherriff Andy, were hardworking, wise, and gentle. Others, like the Clampetts, were irredeemably backward. No amount of money or new circumstances could assimilate them into polite company. 

The most interesting theme of part three is the emergence of a proud redneck subculture. White trash rebranded in the 1980s, Isenberg argues, as an ethnic identity “with its own readily identifiable cultural forms: food, speech patterns, tastes, and, for some, nostalgic memories” (270). It had its own celebrities (Jeff Foxworthy) and its own sports (NASCAR). Redneck culture was something of a protest movement that “embraced a certain species of freedom—the freedom to be a boor, out in the open and without regrets” (281).


Isenberg over-argues the evidence in places. She editorializes a lot, making sure we know she disapproves of the misbehavior of historical figures. I understand her desire to argue a cohesive narrative over the course of 400 years, but doing so confuses important categories. For example, she collapses the categories of “rural” and “poor” in places. She claims Bill Clinton made the redneck acceptable by transforming him into “Bubba”—but overlooks the fact that a lot of self-described rednecks, especially from Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, despised him precisely because he abandoned his redneck roots. 

Even so, White Trash is an important read for anyone who wants to better understand the animosity rural America feels for urban elites. America’s lower-class white population might not know this history, but I believe they feel it. 

I was surprised to resonate with parts of White Trash and I, Tonya. I didn’t grow up white trash—maybe white trash adjacent. White trash was a constant reminder to those of us slightly higher up the ladder that one mistake, one stroke of bad luck, can send you to the trailer park. And I know from my brief time living in New York that the term “white trash” is often applied to whole regions of the country. You don’t have to be white trash to be haunted by it. 

Maybe the most helpful part of Isenberg’s history for me personally is that it has helped me articulate a reality I’ve struggled to name in conversations about race, justice, and identity. I acknowledge “white privilege” and have begun to understand “white identity.” But I’ve wrestled with my relationship to “whiteness.” Whiteness obviously excludes people of color. I can’t help but think “whiteness” is a standard even some white folks struggle to achieve.