Religion in America IV

[sepoy notes: Gentle readers, here it is. The coup de gráce. I will have my thoughts on the series next week. Specifically, I want to see what a secular populist response to this would look like. After all, if the world doesn’t end as predicted, we should have Plan B. In his conclusion, farangi also points to the colossus of America on the world stage engaged in nation-building and nation-protecting – an American worldview informed by the belief in the inerrancy of the text conflicting with a world informed by the belief in the errancy of America. More on that later. I want to thank farangi for a brilliantly written and argued series. He is a gentleman and a scholar and I am delighted he hangs out with the brown folks.]

The Southern Problem

Our terms of discussion on matters of faith are lain out by an anti-hierarchical low church crowd obsessed with and backhandedly supportive of Jews in general and Israel in particular, whose rightful Lutheran inheritance and distrust of modernism has led to a disturbingly anti-critical and anti-intellectual stance, who, despite their standing outside “the world” have via satellite baptized the planet with their beliefs, making millions in dollars and converts in the process, and who, by accident of tradition and slick marketing, rode atop the most significant demographic trends since wagon trains went West.

It is Americas spiritual, psychological, moral and political shift to the South and West that concerns us now, for in that nexus lies the present and future of American religion, and perhaps the future of the world. Just as America is really no more than an idea (what, after all are borders but lines on a map? And the Constitution but lambskin with symbols scrawled on it? Like almost everything we’ve discussed here, it’s the belief that gives life.), the American South, once a matter of survey lines and shorelines, is now a mythical place that exists in the identities of those who feel alienated from the New York-LA cultural axis.

The march of modernism has accelerated at the same time the idea of “the South” has been brought to heel through legislation and public opinion. What began slowly in Dayton, Tennessee, now culminates in a red-state/blue-state dichotomy exploited by fundamentalists for power, and the Republican Party for votes. In addition to being nominally Christian, the South is home to America√≠s rebellious spirit, its libertarian bent, and its supposed authenticity. By simply being historically slow to change, it has come to represent for many a philosophical alternative to godless humanism and sexual permissiveness.

But when we say “South”, we really mean rural. For instance, while I have lived all over the country, I hail from and currently live in the goddamned state of Ohio1. Ohio has major metropolitan centers like Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, but the majority of the state is comprised of either Appalachian foothills or farmland. Outside the metro-centers, there are few minorities (except as farmhands), religious, sexual, ethnic or otherwise. Rural Ohioans are, to my experience, kind and friendly people. But they also resent that their values, terms of discourse and culture are defined by twenty or twenty five million coastal urbanites. Like many Southerners, they wear difference with sophisticated city-dwellers as an honor.

Add to this the demographic effect of a century’s worth of sustained post-civil war migration from the farming and textile communities of the South to the industrial Midwest.2 What were once stereotypical sensibilities held by some Southerners can be seen – exhibited among people who are either not from the south, or are so far removed from the southern ancestors that at some level they must be choosing “the South” as an identity. What’s more, the cultural ties between rural regions and the south have strengthened. They share a love of NASCAR, country music, similar fashion, particular hairstyle, types of literature, dialect, slang (much of it cribbed from the black community) and political orientation. Certainly, Religion is part of this influx of ideas from below.

Fundamentalism attaches at the disconnect between America’s urban and rural cultures, identities and a sense of extreme imbalance between minoritarian values and majority deference. What was once only a southern problem (i.e., outsiders with different, if superior, values imposing change or aesthetics through legislation, force, threats, boycotts or shame) has become a national problem. In this context, the fundamentalist narrative provides succor.

First, it is complete. There is a beginning, middle and end. Second, it’s theologically simple, as we have discussed above. In an age where nuanced thought can be called “flip-flopping” the simplicity of an idea or set of ideas can be critical to its success. Third, because of its emphasis on text, its foundations are accessible to any literate person. Fourth, it appeals to a sense of disconnectedness and lostness symptomatic of a culture and society whose increasingly rapid social and legal changes seem driven by the whims of coastal city-dwellers contemptuous of rural or Southern life. Fifth, due to the prevalence and influence of televangelism, faithful Red-Staters may, in adopting fundamentalism, be part of a self-perceived majority with the power to resist change and, if possible, return the culture to a mythical time of order and stability3. Finally, fundamentalism, provides a complete alternative to the “world cult of personality” by offering a parallel bevy of drawl-voiced celebrities, juicy scandals, comebacks and redemptions – and, increasingly, it also offers alternative media, internet, film, books, and education.

2004’s Democratic loss was the culmination of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which over twenty five years has swept fundamentalists solidly onto the Republican rolls. Nixon must be delighted from his perch in Hell that his cynical appraisal of the American spirit was dead-on. Make no mistake: American southern fundamentalists and white racism have links, but the connection between the South, Jesus and power in America is more sublime. By winning the South’s racists in 1968, Nixon also appropriated its feudal ruling class, its manner of speech, and its collective neuroses. As these values bled into the rural culture writ large, so did a very real perception among common people nationwide that to be moral was to be, conservative was to be Christian was to be fundamentalist was to be Republican.

Meanwhile, some fundamentalists found themselves, through proximity to power, becoming part of an establishment they claimed to despise. I suspect the thanatoptic urges exhibited in the behaviors of Bakker, Swaggart, Lott, Robertson, Fallwell, DeLay, et al. come in small part from discomfort with success. Basically sincere men, however distasteful or evil, cannot lie to themselves for long. It takes someone like Karl Rove to do that. With the southernization of the United States’ rural population at its apex, the time has been perfect to run a New England patrician with a hate of intellectuals and nuance, a love for Jesus and literalism, and a borrowed southern accent. The press tells us that Americans “identify with Bush”. What they mean, and do not get the irony of, is that in exhibiting the values held by this surging swath of faithful, and being mocked for it in Harpers, Bush has become a proxy warrior for Red-Staters’ anger.

And behind Bush, whom I fear is indeed a true believer of many sorts, stands a cadre of men who have designs on Empire. Be they neoconservatives, ex-oil company CEOs, or premillenial dispensationalist Attorney Generals waiting on the Rapture, many of Bush’s advisors see America’s status as lone colossus as a mandate to act boldly on history’s stage. A low-church born-again president is only too happy to agree.

This accidental convergence of narrative crisis, a yearning for simplicity, broad dissatisfaction with the state of the culture, blind faith, demographic and political shifts of tectonic proportions, a boiling-point Middle East with which many, many are eternally concerned, cynical politics and criminal negligence on the part of intellectuals and the press has led us here.

What the fuck is up with religion in America?

Historical errors of mind and heart have poisoned a faith. The faith’s holders’ desire to mold reality “around its precepts” in effect, colonizing reality. They’ve inherited a sprawling Republic whose military can kill ants from space. Newly awakened to the possibilities, the faith holders have begun to see the Republic’s weight as a means to certain textually pre-determined ends, both domestic and foreign, and not an end unto itself. Having killed their own history, they seemed doomed in their ignorance to repeat it.


[1] Still a little bitter about the Kerry thing.

[2] Well, I left Kentucky back in ’49. Went to Detroit working on assembly line / The first year they had me putting wheels on Cadillacs / Johnny Cash–One Piece At A Time.

[3] Trent Lott: ¨When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

4 Replies to “Religion in America IV”

  1. secular populist? Didn’t we sort of allegedly have that in Perot? I don’t know what to offer as a Plan B, but I sort of stick to my guns from just after the election, when I argued (although probably terribly) for a concerted, frame-shifting effort on behalf of the left to wrest “morality” and “religion” away from simply discussion of fags and fetuses. There is power there, I think, which can be demonstrated by Bush’s entire canard of “compassionate conservatism.” Compassion still means something to a lot of people, I think, and if it can somehow become the fundamental frame for the secular/dem/left/whatever position, then it might have success. Look at social security, for example: the GOP doesn’t dare say that they want to get rid of SS since it’s a New Dealish overreaching of the federal government. Instead, the Constitution in Exile crowd is pitching the situation as something broken that needs to be scrapped. Ain’t a single policy wonk motherfucker in the whole world who understands Social Security–yet in town meetings, etc., Bush is going to teach regular Joes that it’s busted and that it needs to get ditched.

    But compassion would check that–a memory of seniors living in total poverty would check that. The idea of old people freezing, homeless, would check that. If America is a moral country (and I think it is), then it must also be a compassionate one.

    The problem is, of course, how on earth this message could ever get out. I can’t imagine it. It’s so depressing, in fact.

    Finally, I was thinking about this while walking around this morning. This Administration is motivated by a truly stunning level of hubris. I know this is no new, deep insight, but it’s still worthy of being repeated. These assholes not only think and assume–they know that they’ll get away with anything. Gonzales is only the most recent example of this. Show me a single, actual, on the street failure that the Bush Administration has overseen. Iraq is, tragically, the best chance, but they’ve shielded themselves so well with the rhetoric of terror that they might even get away with that. I’d admire it, if it didn’t make me so sick.

  2. Sepoy: let me express eternal gratitude for your letting me take over the CM juggernaut for a week. As you know, I’m your servant.

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