Response to Sam Hill, "Fundamentalism in Recent Southern Culture"

Betty A. DeBerg / University of Northern Iowa

         I am fascinated by Sam Hill's analysis of the contemporary South. Since I am not a Southerner, and therefore do not know and feel Southern culture deep down, I hesitate to dispute his conclusions that today the South stands divided in unprecedented ways by the "culture wars" that plague the rest of us. That, if old Southern culture was a kind of tribalism that excluded African Americans, Northerners, and Roman Catholics, the new tribalism is based instead on a nationwide cleavage, or set of cleavages, formed by polarization on social and political issues, such as abortion, which have been taken up by resurgent Protestant fundamentalism. This polarization leads the more conservative white Southern Protestants to exclude other white Southern Protestants, those more liberal on the important issues, from their tribe, and to include any Northerners and Roman Catholics, at least, who agree with them ideologically.

         I want to raise several issues about these general conclusions. First, I think that race, the exclusion of African Americans from Southern

". . .my sense it that the current wave of politically active fundamentalism essentially excludes African Americans in all parts of the country. "

culture, is still a very central and continuous part of the story. Although we still need a lot more research on what, for lack of a better term, we might call black fundamentalism, and the participation of African Americans in the contemporary Religious Right, my sense it that the current wave of politically active fundamentalism essentially excludes African Americans in all parts of the country. It is by and large a movement of white reaction, ready to use and respond to Willie-Horton kinds of appeals, and to oppose affirmative action at all levels. In my view, white reaction against the civil rights movement is not limited to the South, and to the extent that both Northern and Southern whites participate in these reactionary religious and social movements and groups, it is a case of the North becoming more like the South than it is the South losing its regional identity.

         Further, the white Southern Protestants that have been excluded by the conservative forces in the South do not seem to me to embody traditional Southern culture. I don't see this situation as traditional white Southerners turning on other traditional white Southerners. One of the reasons for the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for example, was the growing number of professors at Southern Baptist seminaries, colleges, and universities who had been trained in and taught versions of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. Perhaps the "moderate" Southern Baptist establishment was ousted because they seemed too Northern, too liberal, too trained-by-university-divinity-schools. This would not be a new development in the South. In the 1920s a Vanderbilt biblical professor was accused of heresy by Southern Methodists. What strikes me about the SBC is not its recent ejection of "liberals" but how well it's done in the North lately. Once again, I see this as indication that what's going on is the North becoming more like the South in matters of religion and political ideology--General Lee's revenge. We see this not only in the rise of the Religious Right, but in Northern insistence on states rights and criticism of the federal government. But perhaps all this is a merely a matter of a glass half full rather than half empty. Is the South becoming more like the North, or the North like the South?

          Regardless, I am hard pressed to credit religion for the death of traditional Southern culture, however that is defined. I firmly believe that the New South is a product of central air conditioning, of air-conditioned offices and labs; that is, of the rapid expansion in the South of modern corporate capitalism and post-industrial, technology-based business and research. The material conditions of life in the South have, therefore, become more like those in the North. Couple economic factors with population mobility, which moves Northerners south and Southerners north, and national mass media which tend to reduce cultural forms and sensibilities to the lowest common denominator, and therein lies the death of traditional USAmerican sub-cultures of many kinds.

          Other issues I want to raise are questions about Hill's depiction of the first wave of Protestant fundamentalism in the South. I was surprised by his characterization of it as apolitical and socially marginalized. Fundamentalists in the 1920s, on the contrary, were well organized in the South, and only in the South were successful campaigns launched to pass state legislation banning the teaching of evolution. There was also well organized support for prohibition and opposition to the Smith presidential candidacy. And Hill's description of "classic" (Northern) American fundamentalism as socially marginalized and isolationist does not ring true to what historians of fundamentalism since Sandeen have discovered. The issue for the vast majority of USAmerican fundamentalists since the movement began has been not whether to withdraw from political debate and "ordinary society," but instead has been on just which political and social issues to stake their claim and make their stand. And recently I have come to think that the depiction of heightened fundamentalist political activity as occurring in two "waves" lasting a couple of decades each--the first 1910-1930 and the second 1980 and on--ignores the anti-Communist activism of conservative religious groups in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps both sexual revolutions, one in the 1910s and the other in the 1960s, did provoke more fundamentalist ire and organizing than usual, but we must be careful not to oversimplify.

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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