The New Right, Tea Party GOP is fixated on the Old South of the Confederacy. It is a nostalgia which they want to make real; it is a dreamworld that motivates their policy positions; a polite yearning for Jim Crow and "the good old days" are a litmus test for a resistance by any means necessary to the Age of Obama, and what Barack Obama's presidency embodies as a living nightmare--a world turned upside down, one in which a person who happens to not be White can be the Chief Executive of the United States of America. For the Tea Party GOP this is a world most foul.
We have lots of good folks who follow We Are Respectable Negroes. One of them is Glenn Feldman, historian, and professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
His essay, "Exporting 'The Southern Religion' and Shaping the Election of 2012," is a great meditation on the relationship between race, history, nostalgia, and the allure of the CSA for the Tea Party GOP faithful. I thank him for his generosity and sharing. And of course, do check out his new book Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican.
“The Southern Religion” is comprised of more than just theology. It is (and has long been) a powerful cosmology made up of faith, economics, a reflexive and unquestioning brand of martial patriotism, and the socio-political ramifications that result from this combination. It will affect in a large way what happens politically in America in 2012. Indeed, it has for some time now.
To be specific, The Southern Religion is a blend of Calvinist theology; a rightist economic creed that exceeds libertarianism to regard the proper role of government as the guarantor or state prop of private profit-making; an understanding of civic duty as a knee-jerk bellicosity without the weakness or pause that comes from rational reflection or critical analysis of the intrinsic justice of or what it is “we” are fighting for; and, of course, the most callous type of social indifference. Such apathy has bled over, repeatedly, into an appetite for the subjugation of the “other” in southern history, most markedly black people.
The Southern Religion has not been with us forever but, rather, its principal formative elements came together, piece by piece in the colonial and antebellum periods. Rural, agrarian isolation associated with the farm and plantation, and a cultural, religious, and ethnic homogeneity relative to other parts of the country, buttressed the nascent southern creed in colonial and early America. Insulating tendencies all—into which the regional, religious-based, conservative defenses of slavery, secession, war (and later, lynching and segregation) would only breathe more life—as well as a regional predilection for the unreality that so often characterizes cultural bubbles. The three basic elements—Calvinist theology, Yankee materialism, and Social Darwinism—exported to the South from the New England colonies, joined over time to set in motion a chain reaction that would eventually “blow up” in the post-Reconstruction South and create, “Big-Bang style,” a unique and enduring Southern Religion.
In the economic, material, and psychological desperation that defined the New South, the stressors of civil war, massive economic destruction, occupation by a “foreign” power, and black and “radical” Reconstruction rule exacerbated the cataclysmic labor, property, and racial changes brought on by military defeat. This atmosphere—pressurized to an unprecedented point in American history—fused the more basic elements of Calvinist theology, economic fundamentalism, and a rejection of social responsibility to produce an explosion that created a uniquely Southern Religion.
But if the core trio of elements came southward from the North (New England to be precise), why did the same pattern not follow north of the Mason-Dixon? Chiefly because a succession of factors (not present to any significant degree in Dixie) ameliorated, mitigated, and liberalized the Northern experience. In the North (and the West, at least until the 1880s) religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity found abolitionists, Transcendentalists, and various reformers challenging the original orthodoxy. Quakers, Jews, Catholics, and Unitarians smoothed out the rough edges dictated by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: namely the ceaseless quest for material success and moral superiority as tangible “signs” of election. Immigration, urbanization, and the development of a complex economy diversified the culture. Military victory sterilized the Old Testament predilection for bloodshed and war, and made foreign Dixie’s fixation with proving its patriotism on the battlefield—first to the Southland and, afterwards, with a disproportionate participation and support of every U.S. military engagement since the Spanish-American War.
Being on the right side of history over the questions of slavery and civil rights further ameliorated any Northern need for the hyper-defensive siege mentality that has so often characterized Southern history, from the Confederate to the religious right—the view of region as “victim” that has produced such a striking amount of sectional intolerance of dissent.
All of these factors, and more, geometrically multiplied the number of molecules available to diffuse the power of the original trio of forces—thus preventing the chain reaction that took place in the New South or the creation of a Northern Religion along the same lines as the Southern.
In New England, for example—home to Puritan and Congregational Church Calvinism with its emphasis on worldly success, as well as Yankee materialism—such forces competed with, and were mitigated by, a powerful New England commitment to the commons, the commonweal, and the public good. A devout interest in public education and an acceptance of taxation stemmed from this commitment to the commons: ideas all alien to the South or stamped out in their infancy by the region’s growing reliance on cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco culture, black slave labor, and its attendant racism. A stunted sense of the common good, a deep hostility to taxes, and an overt antipathy to public education as a liberal nursery to threaten white supremacy and class privilege took root instead.
Since then, due to a number of factors—including a technology and media revolution, a vast amount of funding, organization, and foundation work, and the emergence of religious-right involvement in politics—the ramifications of The Southern Religion have become increasingly national in scope and profound. They have been especially influential in shaping the tenor and direction of modern American political discourse, and—unlike more innocuous forms of the “southernization” of America (NASCAR, country music, and Chick-Fil-A), they have produced results decidedly to its detriment. The effects are on full display now in the Camusian absurdism that is the 2012 Republican primaries and the Tea Party movement—as they were earlier in the more deadly serious Reagan-Bush revolution, the “Southern Strategy, George Wallacism, “massive resistance,” the “Dixiecrat Revolt,” and race-based, conservative opposition to FDR and the New Deal.
The Southern Religion—today exported to a large national audience—is replete with those things that typify most any religion: gods, apostles, disciples, creeds (e.g., laissez faire), rituals, demons, (taxes, the big gov’mint Devil, Yankee labor unions, public employees, those who reject preemptive war), martyrs, and a stubborn and enduring imperviousness to rational thought, fact, or argument whenever an article, or a leap, of faith is available. Present also is a tension the South increasingly shares with its partner in Red America, the mountain and plains states of the West and the rural (and even some parts of the declining) urban Midwest: an internal conflict between the cherished myth of rugged individualism and the stark reality of disproportionate sectional reliance on the federal government and its tax dollars. Perhaps most tragically, The Southern Religion‘s going national has led to the current preference among too many Americans for a faith-based world over one based on reality and facts.
For there is no way other than religion to understand the present-day existence of the habitually ill 70-something woman (subsisting on Medicare, Social Security checks, and the occasional charity of relatives) who insists on taking every opportunity to lambast Barack Obama, the unwashed “thugs” of Occupy Wall Street, godless liberalism, and socialism—all one and the same. Or the senior citizen, his hands trembling from his own recent hospital stays, as he locates the sources of his discontent in Obama as a Muslim or anti-Christ waging a war on religion, Democrats as the enemy of god-fearing Americans, and government itself as an abomination—all the while complaining that his Social Security and VA checks are late, his Medicare benefits insufficient, and himself rendered jobless and obsolete by the economy. This carnival of illogic is capped off when the spectacularly proud and self-described rugged individualist asks you (a virtual stranger) for $20 in gas money to make it out to his suburban mega-church for another evening of liberal-bashing religious services.
What other way, besides a regional religion, is there to account for the proliferation of southern, white Catholics who glibly and routinely reject the teachings of the Vatican on war, the death penalty, unions, economic fairness, and the preferential option for the poor only to obsess about homosexuals and abortion, and cheer lustily our bloody incursions into Iraq, police crackdowns on the “socialists” in Occupy, and the deep-rooted Southern appetite for capital punishment?
Sadly, these examples are not cartoons or figments but living, breathing, flesh-and-blood reality in today’s white South. If you don’t believe it, simply come on down and stay a spell. And there is no way to understand the uniform insistence on blaming liberals, Democrats, minorities, and, above all, a black president, as a disconnect so unreasonable, so irrational, so vastly counter to established fact as to comprise something that categorically transcends mere political thought. These are the markings of a religion: The Southern Religion to be exact. Gradually, since the extremist hi-jacking of the Republican Party in 1964, it is a religion that has gone increasingly national. Church services for 2012 have already begun.