Southern Exposure

by digby

Over the long weekend I dashed off a quick post about southern honor being at the root of the victimization culture of American conservatives. Ed Kilgore responded with a very interesting observation and rebuttal, saying that this doesn't come from southern culture so much as the more recent midwestern and western demonization of the "eastern elite" that dominated Republican politics in the 20th century.

He claims that the southern secession was motivated more by prosaic politics than cultural attitudes:

[T]he Lost Cause of the Confederacy certainly owed a lot to a willful exaggeration of the South's plight in the wake of Abraham Lincoln's election as president in 1860. Some southerners did indeed turn reality inside out by viewing potential restrictions on extension of slavery into the territories as both a provocation to southern sensibilities, and as a direct threat to the Peculiar Institution itself. But much of the secession agitation was focused more generally on the fateful emergence of a northern regional political party that had quickly destroyed the power associated with the South's implicit veto over the policies of both the Democrats and the Whigs during the Second American Party system. And that was a real, not imaginary threat, even though it wasn't really imminent.

That's fascinating stuff, but I can't say I can entirely believe that southerners in general, if not politicians, were motived by the arcane political idea that the south was in the process of losing its veto power in the congress. Indeed, I think that was probably seen as just one more insult, the grandest of which was the idea that the North looked down its nose at southern slavery and its culture. But that's just intuition and observation of human nature, not something based in scholarship, so I'll let Kilgore have the last word on that.

But as for the idea that the sense of grievance stems from midwestern and western demonization of the eastern elite,I think he's probably correct to some degree. Richard Nixon would be a perfect example of just such a person. So would members of my own family, all west coast conservatives of 20th century vintage, many of whom have pretty big chips on their shoulders.

I still maintain, however, that southern influence contributed to that attitude, at least in part. In his book American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury, Kevin Phillips made a convincing case that the migration and expansion of southern fundamentalism and the Southern Baptist Church in the 20th century was very culturally and politically important.

Here are the numbers:

Between 1916 and 1926, according to Stark and Finke, the Presbyterians (USA), Congregationalists, and Methodists retired or closed down a significant percentage of their denominations' individual churches. Yet during that same period unfashionable sects were recording huge expansions of churches: a 656 percent rise for the holiness Churches of Christ, 577 percent for the Church of the Nazarene, 553 percent for the Assemblies of God, and 442 percent for the Tennessee-based Church of God.46

Noll, too, concluded that "during the first half of the twentieth century, the fragmentation of Protestantism meant that the nation's historically most potent religious force became a declining influence in the nation as a whole."47 He argued that "the 1930s marked the beginning of the relative decline of the older, mainline Protestant churches." Meanwhile, despite any lingering negative imagery, "for fundamentalist, holiness, Pentecostal, African American, and the new-evangelical churches and organizations, it was a time of expansion. The Southern Baptist Convention, the holiness Church of the Nazarene, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, and the main black Baptist denominations all grew rapidly during this period."48


Wheaton's Noll dates the gathering mainline slump from the thirties but acknowledges that "the public turmoil of the 1960s accelerated that decline."62 For the nearly four-decade period between 1960 and 1997 -- and taking denominational mergers into account -- the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (including the Congregationalists), and the Methodists lost between 500,000 and 2 million members each, the last being the Methodist slippage.63 In the meantime, the Southern Baptist Convention added 6 million, the Mormons 3.3 million, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God 2 million, and the Church of God (Tennessee) some 600,000.64 The direction in these several tabulations is clear: the sectarian gains race across the decades like an express train, another hint of the changes to come.

Now that doesn't mean to say that the whole conservative evangelical movement is southern in nature. There have been some doozies from elsewhere, most especially here in California, which likes the kind of showbiz, con artist religion of the Aimee Semple McPherson types. But the influence of southern culture in many of these churches is undeniable and I think the concurrent spread of them throughout the country contributed to the spread of southern sensibility as well. The same overly prickly sense of victimization that exists among conservative southerners exists among the conservative Christians as a whole, even to the extent that they believe they are being personally insulted when someone says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I submit that they are not unrelated.

Certainly, southern notions of honor are not bound up in southern based religion through scripture. But southern culture (including black culture, which is also southern based, but has good reason to feel victimized) is very, very strong and works itself into institutions in interesting ways, some fantastic, some not so good. And that brings up the other "southernizing" cultural influence of the second half of the 20th century (aside from African American migration to the northern and western cities) --- the military. It has always been a strongly southern institution and the post WWII buildup of the permanent armed forces resulted in many southerners transplanting themselves elsewhere and building new culture around the traditional southern conservative beliefs, similar to the expansion of the southern churches. The idea of "honor," both personal and national, are caught up in that institution in ways that are particular to both southern and military life. Southern honor is part of military culture and military culture is politically conservative.

Finally, Phillips again, speaks of American "exceptionalism" in terms of religious identification and the Lost Cause mythology. He draws unexpected parallels between Israel, Ireland, South Africa and the American south and ends his introductory chapter with this paragraph:

The outlook that Israel, Ulster, and South Africa supposedly had in common -- the sense of a biblical nationhood bathed in blood and tribulation -- closely resembles the scriptural fidelity and religious nationalism forged by the South but too little understood beyond its bounds. This mentality now has an unprecedented influence in the United States as a whole. Well may Americans -- and the rest of the world -- ponder what William Faulkner said about the land of his birth: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

I obviously don't know for sure that notions of southern honor are the basis of modern conservatism's sense of victimhood, but I'm willing to bet that it's a least partially responsible due to the strong presence of deep rooted southern culture in the institutions that undergird the conservative movement and the amazing persistence of the ideas of both American and southern exceptionalism. Like everything else in this odd country of ours, it's complicated and interesting.

The good news is that from wherever their sense of grievance originates, conservatives are out of power for the moment. The bad news is that when conservatives are out of power, their sense of grievance gives them the emotional and intellectual basis for destructive obstructionism, even in a time of crisis. In fact, they perceive a crisis as being the perfect time to hold their breath until they turn blue.

The past is never dead with these people. And for liberals, there is no past at all. It's a difficult arrangement.