Suburban Diversity and Economic Inequality: Can the Democrats Meet the Challenge?

Suburban Diversity and Economic Inequality: Can the Democrats Meet the Challenge?

Since 2004, the sixty-two-foot statue of Jesus erected by the Solid Rock Church has stood as one of the most conspicuous landmarks in southern Ohio, located at the midpoint of the fifty-mile corridor of suburban sprawl along I-75 between Cincinnati and Dayton. The evangelical megachurch built the “King of Kings” statue, featuring a fiberglass and styrofoam Messiah rising with uplifted arms from a large reflecting pool, to proclaim the gospel to the surrounding community and especially to motorists passing by on the highway.

This year, the icon, tagged with such nicknames as “Touchdown Jesus” and “Drowning Jesus,” provided an even greater spectacle when a lightning strike burned it down late in the evening of June 14. The complex’s large neon billboard, which flashes messages such as “No God, No Peace,” emerged unscathed. Solid Rock Church immediately promised to rebuild what it had claimed as the largest sculpture of Jesus Christ in the United States, while secular critics across America had a field day mocking the tacky tastes and in-your-face religious values of this Middle American exurb. A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle sarcastically wondered if gay rights activists had torched the giant Jesus as payback for heartland homophobia and imagined “fundamentalists scurry[ing] about in a baffled frenzy, unsure what it all might mean.” Others observed that God had spared the thriving Hustler Hollywood megastore, located at the same interstate exit, which Larry Flynt opened in his home state over the resistance of public officials and a religious right group called Citizens for Community Values.

Like most stories set in the suburbs, the saga of Ohio’s oversized Jesus confirms some stereotypes but challenges many others. Solid Rock Church is located in Monroe, a town that straddles the boundary between the counties of Warren and Butler, each of which has a white population of approximately 90 percent and a median family income above the national average (comfortably so in Warren, just barely in Butler). In addition to several megachurches and Flynt’s “erotic boutique,” the hybrid suburban/exurban/rural landscape around the Monroe exit includes a giant flea market, an outlet mall, a United Food and Commercial Workers union hall, two prisons, several golf courses, many single-family subdivisions, and plenty of the home and garden stores that flourished during the long housing boom that peaked in 2005.

George W. Bush twice carried each of these solidly Republican counties by wide margins, including 70 percent in Warren and 66 percent in Butler in his 2004 reelection, a time of national obsession with the pivotal swing state of Ohio. But in 2008, with unemployment rising and the economy entering a severe recession, Barack Obama improved the Democratic totals by 4 percent in each county, a microcosm of the statewide shift that flipped Ohio from red to blue in the electoral college.

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