Hillbilly Elegy is first and foremost a memoir about J.D. Vance’s life growing up in working-class Ohio with hillbilly grandparents. This means that his primary aim is to openly examine the path he took to rise out of poverty, a path that took him to college, the Marines, and to Yale Law School. It also means that the book’s key purpose is not to provide answers regarding how to help the poor. However, Vance does gesture toward two institutions that have a chance of improving the lives of otherwise disenfranchised working-class young people: religion and the education system. To Vance, the church is a place that can provide stability to children seeking something dependable in their lives, and education can be the first step toward upward mobility. Since Vance avoids suggesting changes to government policies, which he believes are unable to address the working class’s plight, his endorsement of religion and education is the book’s only tangible solution to the problems he raises.
Vance does not speak at length about organized religion in Hillbilly Elegy because it did not factor very much into his young life. Mamaw was religious, but she followed her own kind of spirituality. This, Vance notes, is common in Appalachia, a region in which, according to some studies, people report that they go to church more than they actually do. As such, the communities are heavily influenced by religious doctrine but lack the communal element of a churchgoing society. Still, Vance encountered serious religion when—as a teenager—he got to know his biological father, who was a devout evangelist. Witnessing his father’s involvement with the church, he observed a cohesive society, in which the church didn’t only offer emotional support to its members—it also offered real, substantial support that might even lead to a job. In this way, Vance frames the church as a place that creates a dependable community willing to share its resources, unlike the greater Appalachian working-class society, which lacks any kind of communal support system.
Because Vance didn’t end up continuing his relationship with his biological father, he didn’t use religion as his means of stability as a young man. Instead, he made his way into the Marines, which taught him discipline while also giving him a dependable community of people who weren’t unemployed, using drugs, and blaming everybody but themselves for their misfortune. Later in his life, though, he came back to Christianity.
Although he doesn’t spend much time in Hillbilly Elegy describing his return to the church, he does emphasize the benefits religion has to offer young working-class people struggling to attain stability. When he considers a young man named Brian, who reminds him of himself at a younger age, Vance writes, “Any chance he has lies with the people around him […]. Brian’s mom’s death was another shitty card in an already abysmal hand, but there are many cards left to deal: whether his community empowers him with a sense that he can control his own destiny or encourages him to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond his control; whether he can access a church that teaches him a lesson of Christian love, family, and purpose; whether those people who do step up to positively influence Brian find emotional and spiritual support from their neighbors.” According to Vance, religion and the churchgoing community are central to the prospect of Brian’s wellbeing. It’s notable that he says a church might provide the young man with “family,” since Brian no longer has any family left. In order to attain upward mobility—in order to identify a “purpose” in life—it is clear that Vance believes one needs a dependable network. For somebody who has nobody else to turn to, it would make sense that this network would be the church.
Vance frames education as one of the first steps toward upward mobility, but he also recognizes the challenge Appalachian children face when it comes to investing themselves in their studies. Unfortunately, the community doesn’t tend to stress the importance of hard intellectual work, and the narrative surrounding education in working-class Appalachia sometimes even discourages otherwise bright students from fully applying themselves in the classroom. Vance explains that academic success is too often ridiculed rather than rewarded, especially for boys who are frequently called “sissies” or “faggots” if they do well in school. To understand why this misogynistic, homophobic mentality would so negatively affect young working-class boys, it’s worth considering the extent to which hillbilly culture prides itself in the alpha-male behavior associated with protecting one’s honor. iI a community that champions macho violence and “a willingness to fight,” it’s unsurprising that being called a “sissy” would be enough to discourage a young boy from fully applying himself to his studies.
Despite Appalachia’s unfortunate view of education, though, Vance strongly believes that academia is one of the most worthwhile things a young working-class person can pursue. Of course, he himself is a living example of how education can lift somebody out of unfortunate circumstances. Having been raised by an abusive, drug-addicted mother with seemingly no resources, Vance was statistically destined for mediocrity at best (or, at worst, an early death due to an overdose). Luckily, he did have one form of support: Mamaw. When he was deciding whether or not he should pursue higher education, his grandmother told him, “It’s the only damned thing worth spending money on right now.” This reinforced to him that going to college would be “an investment in [his] future.” And though his mother was otherwise a difficult, harmful presence in his life, the one thing that can be said in her favor is that she taught him the importance of education. In fact, although his elders themselves weren’t positive role models, they all took pains to instill in Vance a sense of academic rigor. Above all else, Vance sees this encouragement toward education as the primary means by which he attained upward mobility and, thus, a happy life free from the violence and chaos that so often plagues hillbilly life.
Religion and Education ThemeTracker
Religion and Education Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy
The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.
Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.
This pattern of deception has to do with cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure.
I remember watching an episode of The West Wing about education in America, which the majority of people rightfully believe is the key to opportunity. In it, the fictional president debates whether he should push school vouchers (giving public money to schoolchildren so that they escape failing public schools) or instead focus exclusively on fixing those same failing schools. That debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my failing school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”
Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.
In my own head, I was better than my past. I was strong. I left town as soon as I could, served my country in the Marines, excelled at Ohio State, and made it to the country’s top law school. I had no demons, no character flaws, no problems. But that just wasn’t true. The things I wanted most in the entire world—a happy partner and a happy home—required constant mental focus. My self-image was bitterness masquerading as arrogance. A few weeks into my second year of law school, I hadn’t spoken to Mom in many months, longer than at any point in my life. I realized that of all the emotions I felt toward my mother—love, pity, forgiveness, anger, hatred, and dozens of others—I had never tried sympathy. I had never tried to understand my mom.