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 transformed everything.

"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 Northerners.

      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 post-modern one.

      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 distinctive culture.

      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 not everything.

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.

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

contents|main page|masthead|advertisers|e-mail