All that is Solid (and Southern) Melts into Air: A Response to Sam Hill's
Fundamental Argument Regarding Fundamentalism
Joel W. Martin / Franklin and Marshall College
Sam Hill is inerrant. His epistle just needs to be read in the
right spirit. Intentionally provocative, it could easily be
misunderstood. On the one hand, his argument contends that the activism
of fundamentalism represents a radical break with the past. On the other,
it claims fundamentalism, more than the civil rights movement, transformed
Southern culture. Each of these assertions could draw criticism. Hill,
however, wisely qualifies them. White-hot evangelicals, he says, have
always labored to shape southern culture; now it is simply that red-hot
fundamentalists have seized the initiative. And, on the other score, even
as Hill suggests that fundamentalism "has wrought more changes" than the
civil rights movement, he adds the major disclaimer: "along some lines at
any rate." This is the historiographical equivalent of "results may vary"
and "void where prohibited." Hill knows that the civil rights movement
"Hill contends that
Southernness lacks a certain or vibrant future. "
The real issue Hill raises, after all, concerns Southernness.
Based on his analysis of fundamentalism's impact, Hill contends that
Southernness lacks a certain or vibrant future. "The southern religious
sundering of our time bespeaks and furthers the disappearance of the South
as a highly distinctive culture." This, Hill's most important and least
qualified assertion, should inspire a most interesting debate.
Already I can hear professional Southerners in Chapel Hill and
Oxford and New York dusting off their defenses of Southern vitality.
Hopefully, they will make the effort to understand the full depth of
Hill's analysis, before they start quoting polls showing that Southerners
still say "yes ma'am" and prefer their iced tea sweet. To counter Hill's
argument, it will not suffice to note Southerners' omnipresence in
national politics, music, literature, and Hollywood film. The fact that
lots of Southerners continue to do Southern things and outsiders love
reading books and watching films about Southern eccentrics, rogues,
snake-handlers, drag queens, and morons does not decide the issue. For
Hill, Southernness depends upon a widely shared commitment to a regional
culture considered to be sacred. Eating baked yams and smoked hams is not
enough. You have to believe in the South!
Here H. Richard Niebuhr's old
typology, spelled out in Christ and
Culture, can help. In Hill's prelapsarian South, Christ was not over or
against culture; for whites, both Christ and culture were sacred. This
dual focus produced an interesting situation. It allowed lapsed
Protestants and even non-Christians to gain respectability by defending
Dixie and her values. Shared culture, language, and memory tied "sinner"
and "saint" together into one big white Southern gemeinschaft. Indeed, in
the old order, it was probably worse to show signs of being a traitor to
Dixie and its dominant values, especially those regarding race, than to
skip church or indulge agnosticism. Case in point: George Washington
Cable ended up in exile; William Faulkner did not.
Even non-Protestants, provided they showed enough loyalty to the
white South, were tolerated. Secure in their hegemony, Protestants did
not attempt to convert the small numbers of Jews among them. Call this
the Judah P. Benjamin exemption. Although lonely on Sundays, Jews, as Eli
Evans reports, found a home in the South.
Tolerance also characterized intramural relations among faithful
Christians. Led by small town New South elites concerned to suppress
ideological conflicts and promote white solidarity, Presbyterians,
Episcopalians, Methodists and Baptists got along well. Differences became
sources of humor, not mandates for condemnation. Again, this
easy-goingness resulted from the sense of belonging to a cherished
nationality, the white South. One came to belong by affirming the white
South's values, enjoying its peculiar social intensities, and celebrating
its communal rites; and by denigrating the ways of Catholics, Blacks, and
Out of the mainstream were Southern fundamentalists, who did not
seem to get it. Though white and Protestant, they insisted too much on
doctrinal purity, held a too gloomy view of social life and the prospects
for progress, and generally rubbed middle class folks the wrong way.
Marginal players in the New South era, fundamentalists did not lead or
spark its major spiritual dramas, a point made clearly in Paul Harvey's
excellent book Redeeming the South.
Enter the civil rights movement. In Hill's text, it is not fully
integrated into the narrative, but introduced solely so he can emphasize
by contrast the impact of new fundamentalism on Southernness. I would
like to suggest that the linkage is tighter, that along with other
significant spiritual and social factors feeding the new fundamentalism,
the civil rights movement helped create the conditions in which it could
flourish. Hill does not make this claim, but his essay invites it.
Initially, the civil rights movements strengthened white Southern
solidarity. Eager to defend Jim Crow, whites attempted to breathe new
life into a fading Southern civil religion. I experienced this firsthand
as a youth growing up in Alabama. In pre-integration public schools,
teachers taught white children to celebrate the Centennial of the
Confederacy, sing "Dixie," and worship Lee. We were bussed to Montgomery
to see where Davis took the oath, and vanned to Atlanta to visit the
Cyclorama. Meanwhile, our leaders invoked states' rights, blocked
schoolhouse doors, condemned whites who befriended African-Americans, and
defied the federal government.
The victory of the civil rights movement caused a deep
orientational crisis among white Southerners. On the one hand, the
liberation of African-Americans and whites from Jim Crow called into
question much of what had defined Southernness. Race-based nationalism
now appeared racist, unacceptable, anachronistic, and anti-democratic.
Those Southerners who publicly defended white supremacy became pariahs
within the South; even George Wallace recanted. The Confederate flag
became problematic, at best, a reminder of history; at worst, an
exportable icon of hate. Meanwhile, in Richmond, General Stonewall
Jackson had to welcome Arthur Ashe into the pantheon of regional heroes
deified on Monument Avenue.
On the other hand, white Southern Christianity took a licking.
African-Americans in the civil rights movement claimed and won the moral
high ground. Non-violent resistance looked a lot more Christian than did
assaults with firehoses and attack dogs. And King, who initially seemed
like Moses, ended up like Christ, martyred, resurrected as a national
hero. Move over, Robert E. Lee.
Even as they were reeling with the two-sided orientational crisis
caused by the civil rights movement, white Southerners were dealing with
massive social changes brought about by urbanization/suburbanization,
industrialization, the expansion of higher education and the middle class,
the influx of unprecedented numbers of outsiders, expanding roles for
women, new technologies, better transportation systems, and the increased
power of the media, transnational corporations, and consumer culture. BMW
drove into South Carolina. And, in Alabama, Mercedes planted a gigantic
replica of its hood ornament on the holy of holies, Legion Field, as if to
symbolize the conquest of the old New South and the inauguration of the
Enter fundamentalism. White Southerners found fundamentalism newly
attractive for several reasons. As it did for non-Southerners,
fundamentalism offered white Southerners authoritative readings of the
Bible, affirmative statements about the power of Christian belief, and
vigorous assertions of "traditional" moral principles. Fundamentalism's
confident claim to truth and certainty reassured seekers living in
confusing times. Fundamentalism, in sum, provided contemporary Southerners
with what it gave many other future-shocked Americans: a fixed point of
reference in a time of flux, a dramatic interpretation of social change, a
mandate for conservative action, an antidote to anomie, a deep and
rewarding relationship with Jesus Christ, and more.
"Fundamentalism further appealed to white Southerners
by appropriating the rhetoric and tactics of the civil rights movement itself. "
But fundamentalism also appealed to white Southerners for
region-specific reasons. White Southerners' self-image had suffered
terrifically as a result of the outcome of the civil rights movement.
Judged by history and the nation as corrupt and bigoted, they longed to
restore a sense of themselves as a moral people. Fundamentalism provided
the answer with its appeal to a higher authority: the inerrant Bible. In
it, white Southerners found "family values" and restored their sense of
their own moral propriety. Fundamentalism further appealed to white
Southerners by appropriating the rhetoric and tactics of the civil rights
movement itself. As Elvis appropriated Black music, fundamentalism
encouraged whites to think of themselves as the true heirs of King!
Engaging in acts of civil disobedience in answer to the higher law, whites
opposed abortion, promoted school prayer, and nailed the Ten Commandments
to the walls of courtrooms.
As fundamentalism answered the post-civil rights moral crisis of
whites, it also provided a new basis for community for people who had lost
faith in the Lost Cause and could no longer treat its icons as the basis
for solidarity. Far from depending upon a shared sense of Southernness or
assuming it, the new fundamentalism acted corrosively against it. It
relativized Southernness, pitting Christ against culture, dividing saint
from sinner and secularist in a way the old order never did. Instead of
identifying with other Southerners on the basis of history, memory, and
culture, fundamentalists craved the exclusive company of fellow
Christians. They created sect-like churches. They expanded the network
of "Christian" schools and embraced home schooling, opened "Christian"
bookstores and a host of other "Christian" businesses. (In my hometown,
one restaurant now sells "Christian" barbecue and another, "Christian"
chicken fingers.) Such trumpeting would have appeared self-righteous,
silly, or redundant in an earlier age. In the post-modern South, it
enacted a contradiction: professing faith publicly, these signs revealed
skepticism about the culture at large. The South used to be Zion; now it
is just another section of the fallen world that threatens the true
believers. It must be avoided or conquered.
Even as the new fundamentalism drove its ideological-moral wedge
between white Southerners, dividing neighbors and families, it encouraged
believers to ally in novel ways with those formerly excluded: like-minded
Northerners (Christian Coalition), some Catholics (anti-abortionism), and
a small number of Blacks (Promise Keepers). Being their kind of Christian
was the essential thing. Being Southern was optional. Ralph Reed, you
may have noticed, speaks with little or no accent. All of which is to say
what has already been expressed more sharply in Sam Hill's declaration:
fundamentalism bespeaks and furthers the disappearance of the South as a
Is this disappearance a bad thing? Hill avoids saying it is. Nor
does he celebrate the disappearance of Southern distinctiveness. This
refusal to judge suggests ambivalence. It implies that Hill wants to
abandon some aspects of the white Southern heritage without jettisoning
Southernness entirely. Perhaps, like some progressive
Baptists--ministers like King, politicians like Clinton--, he dreams of a
new kind of South, a South capable of reconciling vital Southernness with
equality and respect for all. If this is the case, then we need to read
his epistle less as an objective report on the present and future
prospects of Southernness in an age of theocratic fundamentalism and more
as a text written in a prophetic mode appropriate for a post-civil rights
era. Perhaps Sam Hill has authored a gentle jeremiad that calls Southern
white Christians to reimagine their Southernness and their faith in
non-exclusivistic ways appropriate for and supportive of a pluralistic
democracy. By answering this call, they could give Southern
distinctiveness a vibrant future. That would probably make Sam Hill happy
even as it proved his declaration to be wrong. Inerrancy, after all, is
The author thanks Betty DeBerg and Patty Martin for their help with
this essay. Additionally, he is happy to report that the Mercedes icon has
been removed from Legion Field.