Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Christian Right X 80

Synopsis of a section of Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: Chapter 5, Defeat and Resurrection

Back during the English Civil War, when Cromwell was ruling the government in London, the American colonies were polarized about the conflict. New England and its Puritans and Pilgrims supported Cromwell, but the plantation colonies of Maryland and Virginia supported the crown and the king. In 1961, historian William R. Taylor, in Cavalier and Yankee, dismissed this out-of-date distinction as “fictional sociology.” But in the last half-century, the South's self-image has re-surged. After all, these sectional distinctions were major trouble for the American Revolution, including squabbles in congress from 1775-77, and divisions over the Articles of Confederation. Negotiations over the successor document, the Constitution, nearly failed because of bipolar rivalry. Phillips quotes James Madison in 1787: “The great danger to our general government is the great southern and northern interests on the continent, being opposed to each other...principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves.” Hamilton noted that northerners were more commercial and “navigating,” whereas southerners were more agrarian and equestrian.

John Shelton Reed has noted that anti-South sentiment in the United States is greatest among New Englanders, which is fitting. Persisting animosities between the two regions have sparked secession movements on both sides. The first secession movement was from New England. Subsequently, another northern secession movement arose during the War of 1812. Afterward, compromises to keep the electoral college and U.S. Senate in balance ruled the peace between north and south, particularly the compromises of 1820 and 1850. Southern leaders such as Mississippi senators Salbert Gallatin Brown and Jefferson Davis saw the predominance of Yankee railroad tracks opening the west and thought of annexing Cuba and the Mexican states of Yucatan, San Luis Potosi and Tamaulpas.

As these compromises unraveled, civil conflict became more likely. Then the civil war answered the question of slavery. After the war, the South circled its wagons and furiously protected its own culture, especially because of military occupation by the North. As Robert Penn Warren expressed it, “The Confederacy became immortal.”

“It is this continuing historical consciousness,” David Goldfield writes in Still Fighting the Civil War, “particularly how southerners have interpreted the Civil War and Reconstruction and then implemented that vision, that has set the South apart from the rest of the nation, though not apart from the world.” And a historian of southern religion, Paul Harvey, states, “White southerners after the war created their own civil religion, featuring its own theology myths, rituals and saints...according to the tenets of Lost Cause theology, God's chosen people (white southerners) had been baptized in the blood of suffering and thus had been chastened and purified.”

Phillips notes, “To sharpen regional sentiment, southerners for generations used every opportunity and locale – from cemeteries, pulpits, and war memorials to parades and Confederate veterans' events – to promote their interpretation-cum-theology. Confederate memorials and statues spread even across border states that had sent more men to the northern armies than to the southern. Memory itself became a battlefield.

Phillips mentions a 1998 thirtieth anniversary panel on the subject of 1968 for which he moderated. Conservative commentators Robert Novak and Patrick Buchanan were joined by Jules Witcover, author of The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America. All three agreed that the 1960s had elements of a civil war. Phillips also refers to books like Kirkpatrick Sale's Power Shift and Carl Oglesby's The Yankee and Cowboy War as descriptions of “a desperate struggle between the Yankees of the northeastern Establishment and the Sun Belt cowboys of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, John Connally, and Ronald Reagan.”

During the Civil War itself, a minority of southern Presbyterian clergymen had insisted that the conflict was utratheological – a fight between southern true Christianity and Yankee heresy – and this interpretation, still alive on the margins o Dixie culture, has been raised again, say Edward Sebestra and Euan Hague, authors of an article on Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South. Phillips points out that the South is “still immersed in its own exceptionalism, often at loggerheads with the North and driven by a unique history toward self-justification and expansion. And a very important part of that compulsion is religious.” Phillips mentions that after Reconstruction ended in 1877, the Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians refused to reunite with their erstwhile northern co-religionists; “they instead embraced and kept alive what can only be called southern nationalism.”

After the Civil War, “recruitment by northern denominations among whites was successful only in bitterly divided eastern Tennessee and another dozen counties elsewhere in southern Appalachia.” [These bitter counties are also an important topic in the book that made Kevin Phillips famous, The Emerging Republican Majority, written in 1966: he said these counties re-fight the Civil War every four years during a presidential election]. Phillips continues, “Overall, the centrality of the religious factor suggests a second and informal ballot conducted in church pews: on whether southern “theopolitik” would sustain its antebellum hold. By and large, the southern clergy prevailed, effectively employing their pulpits, church media, and educational institutions. In the eyes of southern truer believers, a defeated country recast itself as righteous republic.”

“When Reconstruction followed” the Civil War, Phillips reminds us, “The Southern Baptist Convention re-mobilized, despite wrecked churches, impoverished congregations, and lack of funds. These years put a strong psychological imprint on its future as well as the region's – akin to the intense Boer experience with the Great Trek and Ulster Protestant immersion in the do-or-die confrontations of the late seventeenth century. No other religious subculture in the United States bears any similar stamp.” Additionally, as religious historian Harvey notes, “churches expressing sympathy for the Union or for Republicans found themselves booted out of Baptist associations and other religions organizations.”

This is the dominant Protestant church of the South at the beginning of the 21st century. The Southern Baptists have established themselves outside the South particularly in Missouri and Kentucky (two states which didn't actually secede), as well as Maryland and West Virginia and Kansas. Sympathy for the South, and numbers of Southern war deserters and gold rush miners, have increased the SBC membership to a top-tier church in New Mexico and the states that border it (Californium, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico). Kansas and Wyoming also have significant SBC membership. The industrialization of the Ohio River valley in the early 20th century has made lower Illinois, Indiana and Ohio states with significant SBC membership. The SBC is weakest in Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as all the states north and east of those two; Minnesota and all the states that border it; Nebraska, Montana, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Other denominations in addition to the SBC spread across the West and Northwest, particularly the Mormons in Utah and bordering states but also including the Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of God, as well as holiness, Pentecostal and charismatic sects, but none as successfully as the SBC.

Southern Baptists were in the forefront of drafting “The Fundamentals,” compilations put together from 1910 to 1915. These were the documents that gave fundamentalism its name. In opposing the teaching of evolution and in supporting Prohibition, the Southern Baptists were ultimately embarrassed and defeated. Many history books say that the fundamentalists and Pentecostals then retreated to the Appalachian hollows or coastal pines as a result. But they did not retreat in numbers. The Southern Baptists, specifically, doubled in size from 1940 to 1960.

Southern Baptists were not yet politically conservative in the modern sense. The SBC Christian Life Commission endorsed the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, though many laity surely disagreed. Some further liberal positions were espoused in books in the 1960s, accomplishments which led to a conservative, intensely fundamentalist counter-movement and takeover of the leadership in 1979.

In 1996, Southern Baptists represented the president, vice president, Senate president pro tem and Speaker of the House, “an absolutely unprecedented foursome that would have stunned the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century southern-born presidents, who were Episcopalians or Presbyterians,” Phillips tells us.

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