Fundamentalism in Recent Southern Culture: Has it Done What the Civil Rights Movement Couldn't Do?

Sam Hill / Professor Emeritus, University of Florida
Abstract: In this essay, the dean of Southern religion historians launches the Journal of Southern Religion by examining a key issue in Southern religious life: the interconnections between religious and cultural forms in the South. Hill presents a provocative hypothesis: Contemporary Fundamentalism (since the 1970s) has changed and challenged traditional forms of Southern culture far more than did the Civil Rights Movement that immediately preceded it.

1. Introduction

In fair weather and foul, the South is reputed; that is, it has reputation. Asking whether its reputation for this, that, or the other quality is justified has fascinated analysts--both Dixie admirers and detractors--for a very long time. One property long attributed to it, that it is religiously fundamentalist, has been incorrect until quite recently. In the same season that the South, in favor of becoming more like the rest of the country, was shedding some characterizations as too distinctive, the region has come to deserve description as fundamentalist, significantly if far from totally. Despite its reputation, the advent of Fundamentalism into the South in recent decades has brought with it significant disruptions to the traditional religious order, and has challenged the established Southern culture as no other social movement this century. In this essay, I propose to do two things. One aim is to characterize Fundamentalism--what it stands for, what it opposes, and what its goals are--and in order to do that, we must glance briefly at the history of this movement both in the South and in the United States at large. I argue that for the first generation or two after Fundamentalism gained a presence in the South, its place within the culture was marginal and its influence minimal. As much as its adherents may have wished that God would turn the society upside down, the movement came nowhere near destabilizing that society. Relegated to the fringes as it was, many thought it would go away or continue harmless, even if its presence was somewhat annoying. Hill quote But Fundamentalism did not fade away, and the second aim of this essay is to assess the influence of Fundamentalism on contemporary Southern culture. If Fundamentalism is not in keeping with the traditional religious and social forms of the South, then its recent advent and rapid acquisition of social power must mean that it has shaken conventional Southern society in ways that the reputation of the South has obscured. To take a case in point, the Civil Rights Movement, the other social force with which we are concerned here, arose as a powerful force in the years after World War II, and was soon to disturb everything. Both its intended and its actual effects were certainly destabilizing, but curiously, we may suggest, the Civil Rights Movement did not overturn traditional regional life. All of the arrangements came to be different, but the building blocks of the emergent new order were in fact those that had composed it for centuries.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Fundamentalism attained an unprecedented prominence in the South. It disrupted two major denominations, the Presbyterian and the Southern Baptist, altering the place of each in the society. It also brought into being and prominence various new congregations, fellowships, media networks, and educational institutions that we will refer to here as a kind of "third force" among southern Protestants. Further, Fundamentalism's ascent took place concurrently with the rise of the Republican Party as the white population's political home of choice, a political realignment that was clearly interrelated to the religious one. Of course, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and `60s contributed to these major changes that occurred in politics and religion, but my argument is that contemporary Fundamentalism has wrought more changes in Southern society and culture along some lines at any rate than did the Civil Rights Movement in its prime.

2. Fundamentalism: An Overview

What is Fundamentalism? It is a form of Evangelical Protestantism, comprising perhaps 15% of the membership of that major national branch of Christianity, and, until recently, an even smaller percentage than that in the southern region. Like the larger company of Evangelicals, fundamentalists are committed to evangelization and the cultivation of personal piety. But while Fundamentalism affirms those activities in themselves, it is much more concerned with, and defined by, correct belief than practice. Christian doctrine is defined in the most precise and absolutist ways, and only a fractional degree of flexibility, or better, none at all, can be honored, regardless of one's experiential claims.

Fundamentalism is therefore exclusive; only those who preach and believe in line with the truth as the Bible presents it--interpretation is no issue here at all--are worthy to be called Christians. What identifies their faith, therefore, is of the head, and fundamentalists prize doctrinal exactitude and correct belief despite their attendant experiential claims. Further, fundamentalists are serial in their mode of thinking, not comprehensive or dialectic. In other words, Fundamentalism identifies particular teachings and ranks them by importance. A fixed number may be held as constitutive of the true message, but they are arranged in a numerical series, not related to each other in a systematic pattern. Such a focus on the articulation of belief--in its most precise form--clearly identifies Fundamentalism as a form of Christian rationalism in its approach to matters of faith, regardless of its reputation as anti-intellectual. Finally, Fundamentalism may be understood as contrarian. Fundamentalists take their cues from the Bible and its teachings, honoring no other sources and reference points. They have no interest in consulting other authorities or opinions, nor do they entertain any interest in cooperation with other Christian groups. There is only one truth, and only one approved epistemic tool. All others are wrong, whatever they may claim about themselves; they are ultimately deceptive and evil, and doomed to divine condemnation. Compromise is thus a vice, not a virtue, in the moral universe of the fundamentalist.

Such an attitude left little latitude for any type of cooperation, and classic Fundamentalism, from its inception in the 1920s until the 1970s, took as an article of faith being withdrawn from society. The world was fallen, human public structures were evil--unless and until the Lord leads the righteous to establish a theocracy or, more likely, comes again. For fundamentalists, organizing politically was simply not an item in the divine calling. Thus for a half century or more, the movement was separatist and contrarian. To most, there was no use, nor any faithfulness, in working to improve things; the Lord's second advent would take care of that. In a world gone horribly awry, only a position of full and complete separation from the larger society could provide the critical distance from which its condemnation could come.

At once we are struck by a historical anomaly. Since the 1970s, when Fundamentalism once again came to command national attention, it has become politically active. It continues to preach a judgmental ideology, but in the process it has adopted a messianic spirit; not retreat but conquest. Classic American Fundamentalism did its judging from a distance. Having neither ambition nor hope to take over the society, it took aim from long range, believing it to be unbiblical to participate in evil structures by joining forces with godless people. Such withdrawal was less tactical than strategic; the Lord's marching orders commanded the purity that can come about only through mingling with his obedient people and no others, shunning worldly folk and concerns

The shift from withdrawal to involvement is a lengthy and complex story, and not central to this paper's argument. I will simply suggest two factors contributing to the shift: (1) the socioeconomic rise of many sect-like church people from social marginality to positions of social impact; and (2) the vacuum in public moral life that has resulted from radical polarization and the cultural conquest by relativist and secularist mentalities. Whatever the reasons, Fundamentalism in America has become a political force, and has taken an active voice in national public life. This condition is all but unprecedented in the American experience with Fundamentalism, a fact that helps explain the fear that many citizens entertain over the effective political organizing conducted by conservative Evangelicals (only some of them truly fundamentalist).

3. Fundamentalism in the South

In the South, Protestant Evangelicalism has long been the largest Christian tradition, its most prominent and dominant religious form. But Fundamentalism was rare before the 1970s and the South's involvement in the movement bears its own marks (just as its historic forms of Evangelicalism are somewhat regionally distinctive). The Churches of Christ, one prominent national fundamentalist group, have been in the South since the late antebellum period, and the Bob Jones heritage (an indigenous brand) dates back to the 1920s. Perhaps only the latter tradition and the independent Baptists can claim to be part of the mostly northern fundamentalist movement that erupted in the early twentieth century. In the other cases, the varieties of Fundamentalism that are present in the South are of mostly recent origin, and sometimes comprise only one unit in a much larger fellowship. The Christian Coalition, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF), and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) represent this second coming of Fundamentalism to the region, although in some cases, notably with the Southern Baptist Convention, only some of the marks of the fundamentalist outlook are evident. Still, from the governing majority in the SBC to movements such as the Christian Coalition and the BBF--comprised mainly of independent Baptist congregations such as Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road church--, Fundamentalism has become both sizable and publicly influential. Thus, while some kinds and degrees of Fundamentalism have been part of southern religious and cultural life for a century or so, the fundamentalist "reputation" of the South could have only been acquired in fact within the past quarter century--the same period that marks the emergence of Fundamentalism into national and regional public life.

The response of the southern regional society to this recent religious-political innovation flies its own colors. That is, the involvement of southern Evangelicals in public life is nothing new--except for that old and small fundamentalist sector which has been as strident and as world-rejecting in the region as in the rest of the country. What makes the new phenomenon of southern Fundamentalism distinctive is that its people have always been at home in the world. They are old-style southern Evangelicals who have on certain issues shifted to align themselves with the recently-emergent more conservative movements. Most of them, following their earlier counterparts, have voted and shown interest in politics, but typically without associating themselves directly with some organized Christian cause. Those who have come to see the Republican Party as alone taking the high moral road, or who have endorsed the advocacy program of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition and promoted such affiliations with messianic zeal, are people whose historic forebears would have manifested less interest in direct political activity. Now they are crying out against the moral vacuum fashioned by relativism and secularism and have centered their moral passion on family and sexual ethics, a natural course for them to take as members of a "home, school, and church" localist culture.

Historian Will Glass has recently shown how largely region-bound southern Fundamentalism was in its early stages, from 1920 to 1960.1 Upholders of the strictest doctrinal standards were making their appearance and their pronouncements heard; mostly they were Presbyterians and Baptists. Exercised over the emergence of liberal theology here and there in the southern churches, they were expressing a concern far better founded in the North, however. In the South fear of compromise was joined by other factors. One was resistance to cooperative Protestantism (proto-ecumenism), sometimes called "unionism," a fear that first surfaced in the Baptist ranks. Among Presbyterians, the continuing talks about reunion with northern Presbyterians also upset many--the two regional bodies having gone their separate ways over the sectional crisis of the mid-nineteenth century. A second factor further invaded Baptist thinking, namely a fear of bureaucratization. A heritage that emphasized congregational self-government--"local autonomy" is their phrase--was becoming larger and larger, more and more organized, and yielding to forces of centralization. The tail was wagging the dog, as many saw it.

Noteworthy indeed is how conditioned by southern history, even how region-bound, these currents of protests and warning were. Keenly aware of what had been happening within the northern denominations, Southerners drew lurid pictures of how those bodies had abandoned sound doctrine. But they had scant interest in joining forces with orthodoxy's standard bearers outside the region, notwithstanding the fact that the mistakes of the "mainline" Yankee churches stood as a model of what to avoid and prevent.

By the 1950s, the number of southern fundamentalists had increased slightly and the shape of the movement in the region had been partially recast. One segment stayed within its denomination, seeking to stall or reverse liberal currents. A second cluster formed new separatist denominations and fellowships along its own denomination's lines, creating, in effect, southern versions of northern groups (or in some cases just allying with these like-minded groups). A third branch of southern Fundamentalism was interdenominational in one of two ways: as fully separatist, or by leaving their denominational structures to join with others who nevertheless shared their own denominational heritage. As late as 1960 then, such fundamentalist development as there was stayed overwhelmingly within the region. That is an impressive datum. Not even a snug theological fit and a shared mission were sufficient to impel widespread interregional collaboration.

Although comparable forms existed earlier in the United States and even in the South, Southern Fundamentalism before the 1970s remained a breed apart. But the new condition of public activity that Fundamentalism adopted in that decade became a mark of Southern Fundamentalism as well. No longer invisible within its own institutions, or dismissible as belonging to a sectarian mentality and a powerless fraction of the population, this Fundamentalism has made its presence and influence felt. As part heir to the huge and culturally dominant Evangelical community, activist Fundamentalism has become a force in the South, and the Southern version of Fundamentalism is largely an extension of its traditional popular Protestant base. As such, its members, perhaps 10-15 million citizens, are anything but strangers to wide-ranging participation in public life--whether social, economic, or political. Far from being marginal, they are central recipients of and actors in the regional religious and cultural heritage. Lately they have "branched off" or "revolted" or insisted that they alone constitute true whatever-it-is; they are the authentic biblical people. But they are not novices at public involvement. In the most storied case, the white Baptist, they are simply the more conservative of the two sectors of the Southern Baptist Convention. Those who suspect, as I do, that their strength lies more in the clergy leadership than in the guiding sentiments of a massive number of church men and women, are not blind to three facts: first, they engineered a "takeover" that could hardly have happened without a following; second, they hold firmly to the reins of the Convention's leadership; and third, no alteration of the present deployment is in sight.

We might have seen this coming for the Baptists when in the early 1970s the Presbyterians battled their way to a rupture. A long record of distrust and disagreement shows up in southern Presbyterian annals, in this case statedly and actually over theology. But here too as with the SBC, we are dealing with a peculiarly southern form of Evangelicalism. The people who created the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973 are not fundamentalist in the classic American sense. They do not belong to the socially marginalized, therefore publicly inexperienced and isolationist sector. Participation in ordinary society, including politics, has been natural and regular; these are not socially dissident people. What then has energized this company of Presbyterians? Are they even truly fundamentalist? It is not easy to characterize them when that is the question we pose. World-rejecting they are not, nor society-repudiating. Where the question becomes intelligible is in the area of beliefs. They hold convictions about what constitutes authentic and faithful theology, and they affirm particular doctrines defined in specified ways. Accordingly they are exclusivist, with the criterion of inclusion being correct belief. But we cannot evade the datum that they are a blend of exclusive and inclusive. They are cooperative with like-minded right-minded fellow Protestants. Like their fellow rationalist believers, what they trust is not experience but propositions. The PCA does, however, regard Christian thought as systematic--the parts functioning in the setting of the whole--which distinguishes it from the serial approach of most American fundamentalist groups.

The realignment of the PCA and SBC was a precursor to the cultural changes that were to come. But even as Southern Fundamentalism made its way impressively onto the scene of the regional culture, it remained distinctive, peculiar in its own curious way. First, it was historically a rather small movement, perhaps because the conservative influence in the South was already so pervasive. One had to look hard to find any more open space on the right. The contrast, one might say, was between the red-hot and the white-hot. Second, the early southern fundamentalists were aware of the movement in the northern states that had generated headlong confrontation in the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations and independent churches. They were in a position to take notes and learn from the attacks on liberalism led by these northern militants. But, although there was obviously some sharing of leadership and "fellowshiping" back and forth, by and large the founders and followers spread from Texas to Tennessee to Florida to South Carolina were people of and from Dixie. The heresies they exposed and the institutions they maligned belonged to the South. For them, the South was home, Zion, the area where they spoke the same language as everybody else. Finally, the third and most curious way in which early southern Fundamentalism was culture-specific lay in its inability to destabilize the society and culture. That it had impact on individuals, some congregations, and several locales is evident. It also waved ripples of dissent through Southern Baptist and Presbyterian waters. But the movement and its spirit were only nuisances much more often than they were disturbances. And even though it did not affect denominational life greatly, its impact in the religious setting was far greater than it was on the civil order, much less on "the South" as a heritage, a way of life, and a biracial society. "The South" as a way of life hardly knew that the fundamentalists were around. All that would change in the 1980s.

4. The Civil Rights Movement

William R. Glass argues that a general fundamentalist subculture did not emerge in the South before the 1940s and `50s. Thus, the South's early generations of fundamentalists could not destabilize the society, much less the culture, before then. They were even unable for the most part to affect significantly the southern denominations. Fundamentalism was a minor minority movement, and little more than a nuisance in some particular locales and organizations. Its adherents were not easily ignored, but they were rather readily dismissed. Impotent insofar as being able to bring about any significant social change, southern fundamentalists were thus oblivious to any impetus to integrate regional society. If they did not devote much energy to defending segregation, neither did they feel called to challenge it. Informing this outlook was the fact that fundamentalist congregations, institutions, and orbits of influence remained overwhelmingly white. To the black citizens of the South, the fundamentalist message spoke not at all.

5. Has Fundamentalism done what the Civil Rights Movement could not do?

The hypothesis that prompts this inquiry is this: At the deepest levels, the change in racial and biracial affairs brought about as a result of the Civil Rights Movement was less disruptive of historic Southern culture than the Baptist, Presbyterian, and "third force" fundamentalist uprisings have turned out to be. If the reputation of the South as a hotbed of fundamentalist activity were true, then just the opposite would be the case; but in fact the Fundamentalism of the past forty years or so has destabilized the traditional culture of the South in ways far beyond what the Civil Rights Movement was able to accomplish.

First, it really is astonishing how little that was truly new was introduced into the South in consequence of the events of 1954, 1955, 1963, 1965, and so on. The citizen sector over whom these violent and nonviolent battles were fought had been part of regional life for three and a half centuries by that time. As unavoidable, as central, as ingredient as African Americans were to Southern life, they had been put and held in "their place," denied their political and civil rights, doomed to educational and economic inferiority. One manner of describing what the Civil Rights Movement brought about is this: The acknowledgment that a people and a culture, without either of which the historic South was unimaginable, were citizens in the communities of the region. That acknowledgment, far more than verbal, issued in major dislocations, disturbances, and realignments to be sure. Yet, few new people were immigrating to the region and few new institutions were making their appearance. Traditional Southern culture was changed from the inside out as it were, as what had been present all along found greater expression and acceptance. The Civil Rights Movement might thus be termed a conservative revolution of the South's culture and society.

In contrast, the movement of Fundamentalism into mainstream Southern life is turning out to be a radical revolution. Contemporary Fundamentalism is contributing to the demise of Southern culture as it has existed since the Old South period. Its orbit remains largely limited to the white population, dominantly in the traditional Baptist and Presbyterian denominations, but also in the once fringe sectarian bodies that we are calling the "third force." It is hard to imagine more culturally central and influential institutions than the Baptists and Presbyterians have been in the historic South. Their economic prominence has been great, their political power so forceful as to oblige all people seeking public office to hail from their ranks or to assure the voters that they really think the same way. The triumph of Fundamentalism in the South needs only one example. When Presbyterian conservatives--let's call them lower-case fundamentalists--created the PCA in the 1970s, they had to do so by withdrawing from a parent body, the PCUS (Southern). By the 1980s, "fundamental conservatives" in the SBC mobilized themselves into a major force and acquired power in that massive organization. Theirs was a well-orchestrated takeover, not a defection, and they have successfully defended their domination through the intervening years. Indeed, any withdrawal from SBC ranks will probably be by a cadre of "moderate conservatives" who make up what is to date a non-schismatic group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The Civil Rights Movement had inclusion as its primary goal. In public policy it was democratic, in that it sought to identify and safeguard a place for everyone. The fundamentalist movement is differently disposed. Its passion is to promote the view that "truth" is absolute, with or without any acknowledgment that any absolutist position places truth ahead of people, in the sense that truth has its essence independent of people's existence. Individuals must come to the truth; it does not come to them. Instead of honoring inclusivity, then, Fundamentalism propounds exclusivity. The infallibility of Christian truth and its attendant authority leaves no other choice. This, of course, is not the view of fundamentalists themselves; after all, all people are invited to join the exclusive circle of truth-believers. Christians of this persuasion do not desire to exclude anyone; their divinely ordained mission (as they understand it) is in fact to enlarge the true believers' circle to be congruent with the entire human race. But we must also be clear that what makes for a certain theology of inclusion proves to be an incompatible social policy when a democratic vision prevails. The fundamentalist Christian public policy is consistent with its theology: all, everyone, must own the truth. Those citizens who do not ought nevertheless to consider themselves blessed if their homeland lives by laws and customs that accord with their understanding of divine righteousness. By their own reasoning, fundamentalists have no right not to inform the recalcitrant what is best for them, no matter what that recalcitrant majority may think of them and the basis of their public policy.

Sketched out this way, we are afforded more than a hint into the interpretation that the fundamentalist movement is more disruptive than was the Civil Rights Movement; or, it will have proven to be so if its effect is as comprehensive and enduring as was that of its predecessor. The Civil Rights Movement reconfigured all the existing parts of Southern society and culture by insisting that all be considered equal partners, by law and, desirably, in informal practice. Fundamentalism insists on establishing public policy for the entire public whether most, many, or only a few subscribe. That is the force of its inner authoritarian logic. It is perhaps too simplistic to label these competing views of public life as a contrast between democracy and theocracy, but their conflict is apparent.

The ultimate effects of such fundamentalist reasoning on national life remain to be seen. What can be said for certain is that Fundamentalism's great achievement thus far has been to make Southern religion less Southern, that is, less culturally influenced or even less culturally captive. Fundamentalism has succeeded in the dissolution of two southern denominations as we have known them. No one ever had any reason to doubt that the PCUS or the SBC were Southern. Both exhibited a strong alliance, or a neat fit, between church and culture in the American South; a fact affirmed by the incapacity of popular Southern religion to be effectively exported to other American regions. But at home it has always been at home. No one could have imagined fifty years ago that Southern bastions like the PCUS or the SBC would ever forfeit their identity and solidity. But something deemed more important than Southernness intruded, namely, ideological correctness. Being sound, being right--theologically--toppled classic regional identity from its throne. A provincial spirit has continued, to be sure, but its dynamic has shifted from being an informal, strong cultural hegemony to being a crusade to conquer the region and the nation. From this angle of view, this radical revolution has certainly lived up to its prophetic vocation.

While the South never was an undifferentiated mass culture, there was for a long time an identifiable Southern culture. What the fundamentalist-minded Baptists and Presbyterians and their third force compatriots (the independent Bible churches and the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches) have wrought is the supplanting of being true to the South. Now being the right sort of church person and citizen comes first. The old tribalism of Southern life, a product of its history and its heritage, has been dissipated by the recent developments in these central and stalwart denominational organizations. It is being replaced by a new tribalism that represents a coalition of the right-thinking, the correct-minded, the doctrinally and ethically pure. Briefly stated, the old base on which unity and identity rested that was social-cultural-historical has given way to a new base that is ideological, theological, and ethical.

Cultural tribalism always carries with it boundaries of inclusivity and exclusivity. Before the religious revolution of the 1970s and the 1980s, those excluded in Southern life were African Americans, Catholics, and Northerners. With high ideals, the Civil Rights Movement sought to expand these boundaries and succeeded in large degree. Since the revolution, the boundaries have again been redefined, but this time through restriction rather than expansion. The criterion for inclusion is now doctrinal belief, conformity to an orthodoxy that has been defined by those who think straight. Southern fundamentalists among the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and within the third force institutions hold more in common with their coreligionists in other parts of the country than they do with many coregionalists within their own denominations. The end result is that many of those who were previously the cultural and religious "insiders" have been excluded by this new deployment. Theirs is perhaps the deepest pain, because they took so much for granted during the many generations that they participated in and led these bastion bodies of Southern culture. Nor is their anguish lessened by acknowledging that they are getting a dose of their own medicine as the ones who had for so long regulated inclusion and exclusion. The aggrieved-become-aggressors in Southern Fundamentalism care not at all that they have scuttled hallowed heritages.

6. Conclusion

Economic or political historians slant all history toward economic or political explanations. As a religious historian I am prey to the same kind of error by assuming that the religious life of a society is what really animates it. All of us as students of human behavior must do better than that. Yet, what is happening these days in the religious arena in the South and the nation is striking, and demands our attention and analysis. In his book, Broken Churches, Broken Nation, C. C. Goen argued that the breaking up along regional lines of the three largest denominations, the Methodist, the Baptist, and the Presbyterian, both presaged and helped cause the secession of the Southern states to form an independent nation. 2 My contention here, more like a hypothesis, is that the Southern religious sundering of our time bespeaks and furthers the disappearance of the South as a highly distinctive culture. The application, of course, is complex. These recent changes make the persistence of Southern culture more tenuous. They have done so by forging new alliances between very conservative religious forces in the region and in the North and West. And by dividing and conquering, they have weakened the internal unity of the traditional denominations, prying them loose from their comfortable link with traditional Southern culture. That in itself is an accomplishment that those who repute Fundamentalism to traditional Southern religion seem to miss.

1. William Robert Glass, "The Development of Northern Patterns of Fundamentalism in the South, 1900-1950" (Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1991), chaps. 3-5. Return

2. C. C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the Civil War (Mercer Univ. Press, 1985). Return

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

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