After a song about poverty and disenfranchisement went viral recently, making Christian singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony an overnight celebrity, Jared Stacy explains why ’Rich men north of Richmond’ falls short of being a true biblical protest song

Oliver Anthony

Virginia-born Oliver Anthony became an overnight hit recently after his song, ’Rich men north of Richmond’, went viral. The song – a working-class protest ballad – shot to the top of the charts a few weeks ago in the States.

The song voices the plight of a particular class and community in American society, but has divided opinion, because some say it relies on recycled tropes and conspiracy theories. Anthony criticises obese people on benefits – “Taxes ought not pay for your bag of fudge rounds” – and seems to make use of conspiracy theories, such as those peddled by QAnon, to describe the corruption of political elites – “I wish politicians would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere”.

After the song went viral, Anthony seemed to draw biblical comparisons by choosing to read from Psalm 37 in a public performance. “But the wicked will perish.” he read, “though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, and they will go up in smoke”. This scriptural reference imbibed the song with a sort of biblical authority and made it an attractive political tool.

Last week, ’Rich men north of Richmond’ was featured on the playlist for the Republican primary debate. This drew criticism from Anthony himself, who expressed his frustration and confusion in an online video post. In spite of the way the media had painted him as a right-wing populist, Anthony said some of the “rich men north of Richmond” that the song was about were on the stage that night.

Biblical protest?

Just because Anthony has alluded to a personal faith does not mean we should overlook the song’s use of recycled tropes and conspiracy theories, but neither should we dismiss the message he is attempting to share.

We all talk about our problems in ways that are shaped by the categories furnished by our own experience and the broader assumptions around which our cultures and communities are organised. The use of tropes and conspiracy theories to talk about poverty and political corruption – while dehumanising and dishonest – are also attempts to tell the truth that arise from pain, loss, and chaos. If we are honest with ourselves, we will all admit that narrating a deep pain publicly – either with friends and family or on social media – can be extremely difficult.

I think the song falls short, however, because its spirit relies more on sentimental caricature rather than concrete honesty. Writer James Baldwin once said that sentimentality is “the mark of dishonesty” where “the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.” We see glimpses of such cruelty and dishonesty in this song. Sentimentality robs ’Rich men north of Richmond’ of the substance that might have turned populist resentment into biblical protest, an act of truth-telling more in line with the essence of Psalm 37.

The Psalms are indeed a way for the Church to learn how to express our emotions and direct them towards the God of both judgment and grace, yet I’m not convinced that this song fits that category. Tragically, biblical allusions are often applied without thought.

As we walk with God, we find more truthful ways to talk about our problems. We can discuss political corruption without falling into conspiracy theory. There are better ways to talk about cycles and conditions of deprivation and employment that don’t resort to pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps moralism. That sort of moralism can obscure the erroneous belief that poverty is simply a moral failing. In American history, such moralism has also aided and abetted white supremacy.

I pastored north of Richmond, half way to DC where the “rich men” live. I think it is possible – and yes, Christian – to seek to understand people who are in pain. Often, behind pain we find life experiences we do not fully understand. This has a way of diffusing contempt with empathy.

This doesn’t mean we cede honesty, but it does mean we pair it with mercy, as is proper to the Christian life. If we are to alleviate the polarising political climate and the fracturing social bonds of American life, Christians must be people of honesty paired with generous mercy. This combination is Spirit-given, in that it seeks not only to seek the truth, but also to understand the pain that often gives rise to imperfect protest