by Charles S. Garabedian
A Hill to Die on in the American South
We have so much journalistic literature and so little time to read it these days. A lot of it is average to bad literature because someone has a job and their boss requires them to write a bunch of things each day—and maybe the author’s heart and soul are not really into it. However, important exceptions are out there. A couple of days ago, I ran into a really excellent article by Stephanie McCrummen in The Washington Post. The title is Judgement Days: In a Small Alabama Town, an Evangelical Congregation Reckons with God, President Trump, and the Meaning of Morality. You may have already read this article, which has been trotting from one major newspaper to another over the past three days. If not, please read it by clicking on the following safe link:
I really like this article because Ms. McCrummen went to Luverne, Alabama; embedded herself like an ethnographer in the congregation at First Baptist Church; and made friends with the pastor and women folk of the church. A huge photograph of these women is shown on the first page of the article. Just so you will know, nearly every woman in that photograph is most likely a direct lineal descendant of 18th century Scots-Irish-English immigrants to the 13 British colonies in the New World. I grew up in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, and ladies much like these populated just over 50 percent of my small southern town.
Read the above article carefully and you will understand in greater depth who the fundie people are that support President Donald J. Trump and why they support him with such stubborn vigor and fervor. You will also notice an important theme I have discussed in depth under the “About” subheading on this blog. That theme is fear of annihilation, which is so characteristic of the various religious fundamentalisms around the world today, including Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism in the United States. This theme is especially important in the American South because of its unique history. It may be a bit hard for people in other regions of the United States, Canada, and other foreign countries to understand, so I will explain it to you.
The people of the rural and small town American South are overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) who value southern cultural tradition almost as much as they value Jesus and life itself. Indeed, all three are tied together tightly like a triple-helix bond in the southern mindset.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) devastated the 10 states of Old Dixie to the same horrifying extent that Syria is devastated by its current civil war. Southern people have never viewed the American Civil War in the same way that people in other parts of the United States have viewed it—a simple four-year war to reunite the nation and free African-American slaves.
Prior to 1861, people in the American South believed that they had an ideal traditional cultural way of life that worked well for them—something that was not broken and did not need fixing—and I am not talking about the system of slavery alone. Traditional southern culture has always been far more than that alone. Southern people viewed the American Civil War as a Yankee outsider attempt to destroy their most highly valued traditions, culture, and way of life. It was seen in the same way that Americans, Canadians, and Europeans viewed Soviet communism during The Cold War. The Soviet Union was not out to just conquer them by military force. The real Soviet aim was to totally annihilate their democratic governments, capitalist economies, and traditional cultural ways of life. (Hang on tightly to the term traditional cultural way of life as you read on down the page because it is central to this discussion.)
Right after the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Period began in the American South. Between 1865 and 1967, southern white people were creating a new traditional cultural way of life, often referred to by the term Jim Crow. This new way of life included oppressive laws and social sanctions designed to contain African-Americans and keep them beaten down and submissive. Southern white people, while still painfully wounded by memories of the American Civil War, believed they had successfully created this new traditional cultural way of life, which combined what was still leftover and best of the pre-1865 way of life with the new policy of containing and oppressing African Americans. Southern white people believed it was a new traditional cultural way of life that worked—one that suited them just fine—one for which they believed no fixing was needed.
Then the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the U.S. Supreme Court came along. Another southern cultural disaster was looming. The Civil Rights Movement was supported by northern and western white college students—and at first the Republican Party—and even Vice-President Richard Nixon to a small degree. The Democrat Party had long been a major supporter of the so-called Solid South and its newly found Jim Crow way of life. Then, all of a sudden in 1960, Robert F. Kennedy talked the Democrat Party into abandoning its support for the Jim Crow south and into supporting African-American civil rights. This was all initiated as a part of the attempt to get his brother, John F. Kennedy. elected President of the United States.
Many white people in the American South soon understood the Civil Rights Movement to be a second American attempt to annihilate their newly found traditional cultural way of life. Southern white racists started fleeing by the millions from the Democrat Party to join a new Republican Party. By 1968, it was known colloquially as the Party of Nixon, and it quietly welcomed all of these rabid southern racists with open arms, a warm bed, and a French kiss.
The Civil Rights Movement and the U.S. Supreme Court that supported it did not stop with just African-American civil rights. Another big blow to the American South was the 1963 high court ruling on prayer in American public schools. I remember that one very well from my childhood days. Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical religion—big-time southern style—was huge in the elementary schools in my small southern town. We kids had to say prayers, repeat prayers written for us by teachers, memorize Bible verses, and stand up and orally recite the verses we had memorized. Bible stories were often read to us at story time in our classes. Jesus songs and traditional Christmas carols were sung. Sometimes it was hard to tell where Sunday School ended at church and where the 3 R’s began at school. In many ways, it all seemed like one big thing.
The most important aspect of all this that I remember was the parental outrage that accompanied that U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school prayer. Our southern parents were emotionally devastated by it and exceedingly angry about it—and they still are. Soon afterwards, equally devastating U.S. Supreme Court rulings were handed down, such as Loving vs. Virginia, the ruling that allowed interracial marriages. With it came the birth control pill, the American Sexual Revolution (as Hugh Hefner dubbed it), and Roe vs. Wade. Large numbers of American white people from the north and west, as well as people from foreign countries, began populating the emerging New South. A tidal wave of sociocultural change was enveloping the southern states and their people in the 1960s and 1970s. Once again, particularly in the small towns and rural areas, southern people felt that their newly found traditional cultural way of life was under siege and in danger of annihilation.
No person who has lived south of the so-called Mason-Dixon Line can discount the sheer power that Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism (together as one) have over the rural and small town populations of the American South. It pervades all things in southern culture. It has the same power over southern white people that Islamic fundamentalism has over the Taliban in Afghanistan. It tightly grips them, and they tightly grip it. Sentimental southern hearts bleed for that ole time country religion, tent revivals on hot August nights, waving funeral home fans, all-day Sunday singing (southern gospel style), and dinner on the grounds at the little country church. The little country church is painted in a favorite cultural color—all white). Momma, daddy, all their dead babies, and members of the past 11 generations of the family are buried in the cemetery next to that little church. All are united as one in traditional culture, mind, and soul.
If Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, were still alive today, I think she would agree that the people of the American South (particularly older whites) see themselves as a people who have been under incessant cultural assault for the past 188 years. It began in the 1830s with the first rumblings of slavery abolition, and it still goes on today. Their white ancestors had their traditional cultural way of life ripped from their hearts by the violence of civil war, the fiat of government courts, and the “inferior” cultures of foreign invaders. Never mind that most of those foreign invaders were and still are white people from places like Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, California, etc. Never mind that the new wave of invaders consists of Islamic refugees from Syria and Somalia, Latinos from Mexico and Central America, or immigrants from China. In the traditional cultural mindset of the American South, the whole lot of them are the “new Yankees and n-words” that endanger the traditional cultural way of life so highly valued by elderly southern white people.
I believe the Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism of white people in the American South are more than just religion alone today. They are both faith and symbol. Both are still the predominant faiths of the American South, but they are simultaneously a living symbol of all the traditional cultural ways of life that have been lost since 1861. Moreover, they are viewed as the last redoubt—the last hilltop fort—the last really important piece of their traditional cultural way of life. If fundie religion collapses in the American South, then all is lost forever—all is lost forever—all is lost forever—all is lost forever—and ever—and ever. The thought of such loss is too painful for old southern white people to contemplate or tolerate. They feel a deep need to be rescued by someone.
If all is lost, life will no longer be worth living for many elderly white men and women in the small towns and rural areas of the American South. Old white people live in fear that the larger American culture (represented in their minds by the twin monoliths of liberalism and progressivism) have targeted their fundie faith and the few remaining tidbits of their traditional southern culture for final annihilation. As their beloved Confederate monuments and the Stars and Bars flag go down, perhaps for the last time, they have staked out their southern ole time religion (Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism) as their “last hill to die on.”
Donald J. Trump is not just their choice for President of the United States. He is seen as the Anointed One of the Lord. Trump is the one God has personally appointed to save their fundie faith tradition, rescue the remaining tidbits of their traditional cultural way of life, and begin the restoration of all that has been lost. If Trump fails to restore what has been lost, if he fails to protect their fundie faith, if he is thrown out of office by a U.S. Senate trial, then all that remains will be the millions of AR-15s in the American South, vast stocks of ammunition purchased from local firearms merchants, and the high hill many southern white fundies plan to die on some day in the future.
Will they take such a violent stand, or will they fold? My best bet is on fold. The American Civil War and the the collective memory of its devastation are still strong—and most of the people who fear this final annihilation of traditional southern culture are too old and weak—with one foot already in their grave. The younger generations behind them–particularly the millennial generation—for the most part—do not share this specter of final annihilation.