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Book Explores Religion, Public Life in the ‘Southern Crossroads’

Growing up in the 60s in north Louisiana, I was always noticing the angry billboards:

GET US OUT OF THE U.N.!

JESUS IS COMING SOON–ARE YOU READY?

WATER FLUORIDATION … A COMMUNIST PLOT.

These insistent messages were just a normal part of the scenery, like azaleas in bloom, icebox pies and LSU football. But the anger was puzzling. I saw it in letters to the editor, in leaflets left on the car windshield, in the scowls of TV preachers–attacks on “weak sister” liberals, blasts against secular humanism, detailed predictions of Armageddon.

Why were the adults so mad? What were they afraid of? It seemed out of proportion to the facts. No one could tell me why.

My part of America was always filled with gracious people, charming neighborhoods, and faithful churchgoing. But there was something else in the air–a cloud of political fierceness and aggressive Protestant argument. The very sky was a riddle of anxiety. We saw it as the staging area of a gathering apocalypse: Either Russian missiles would bear down on nearby Barksdale Air Base, or Christ himself would split the firmament in a final blaze of judgment, an ultimate furnace of truth.

It didn’t occur to me until I left home that our brand of confrontational culture wasn’t so normal after all. It was the strange brew of a specific religious and social past, an accident of history. The small region that produced this prickly ethos has a name, as it turns out–the Southern “Crossroads” states–Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.

They mark the boundary between the old Confederacy and the frontier West, a transitional land of psycho-religious intensity. Unusual hostility to government and secularism, friendliness to entrepreneurial business, individualism, firearms and Christ–these are the accents of Crossroads identity.

Today, this proudly combative conservatism is no longer our little secret. It has spread to the rest of America. It’s the region’s chief export, providing the tone and animus for the nation’s smoldering 24/7 cultural wars. America’s most powerful men–President Bush, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft–are products of Crossroads style and values. (It’s tempting to expand the list–Missourian Rush Limbaugh, West Texan Kenneth Starr, and, nightmarish anti-hero of them all, Bill Clinton.)

Thank us very much.

All this is identified in a useful new book, Religion & Public Life in the Southern Crossroads, edited by William Lindsey and Mark Silk (AltaMira Press, $19.95 paperback). With essays and stats offered by seven scholar-contributors, it describes this fateful sectional sensibility in ways overlooked until now.

“Historically this was a region of showdowns, where people fought intimate battles over turf, slavery, family pride, and, always, religion,” Lindsey writes in the introduction.

“Remote from both coasts, filled with cultural peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, it has nevertheless provided a model of religion in public life that, for better or worse, is casting its spell over the nation as a whole.”

Each of the five states can claim its own unique history, but they share traits that make the region the most politically conservative in the nation, the book declares (based on exit polling from recent presidential elections).

Attitudes toward welfare spending, abortion and gay rights are more intensely negative here than anywhere else. Churchgoing white evangelical Protestants hold sway, despite the swelling Latino numbers in Texas and elsewhere. Baptists still dominate the religious establishment in many Crossroads towns and cities, as scholar Bill Leonard points out. Joining the Baptist-style agitation against secularism today are many formerly anti-Baptists–often mainline Protestants, Catholics and Pentecostals.

This sizzling backlash against the culture was 150 years in the making. Evangelicalism always ruled, but the Crossroads world was also contentious, competitive and ethnically diverse. In the 19th century, incessant intramural doctrinal feuds animated and embittered Protestants. But other conflicts crackled on this frontier of transitions–slavery versus abolition, traditionalist versus modernist, populist versus elitist, countryside versus city, Old West versus Old South, Baptist versus charismatic versus Catholic.

Add the strong subcultures of African Americans, Native Americans, Creoles, Cajuns and immigrant Europeans, and it created a richly contradictory milieu. Church leaders and culture gatekeepers forged a pugnacious style for engaging any conflict–embodied by Baptist controversialists J.R. Graves (1820-1893) and J. Frank Norris (1877-1952), who crusaded against modernist religion and godless society with flame-throwing rhetoric and skill.

This showdown mentality endures today, not only in the Southern Baptist Convention but in the political skirmishing and bluster showcased on Crossfire, Fox News, talk radio and the op-ed pages of the dailies.

“Although the issues about which they currently fight have changed from the denominational to the national and from the theological to the cultural and moral, Protestants in the Southern Crossroads have been transformed from doctrinal controversialists in the 19th century to the culture warriors of the 21st,” writes Andrew Manis.

I had been waiting for this sort of book for 30 years. It aims to decode and demystify the ferocity and paradox of my birthplace region–a geography of traditional faith that produces divorce rates higher than those in liberal Massachusetts, New York and California. Eager as ever before to conquer the culture for the Protestant Christ, the Crossroads is today witnessing a rising number of non-churchgoers and a Latino demographic that will eventually remake the landscape.

Historically the Crossroads felt isolated from the rest of the nation–and resentful of being ignored. But its modern revenge has been underway for 25 years. In Dallas in 1980, conservative religion and politics finally coalesced around a vision of national conquest: The Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing drew more than 10,000 people to hear Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and, not least, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. Hitherto politically passive white evangelicals became active Republicans, observe Lindsey and Silk. The doctrine of Christ’s divinity made room for a new commandment: Register conservatives to vote.

Thus the birth of the contemporary Religious Right came to be identified with the rowdy flair of Texas. The Southern Crossroads was finally going prime-time. The nation hasn’t been the same since.

“Religion, evangelical style, has become a fixture of national political rhetoric and electioneering in a way absent and unanticipated only a generation ago,” they write.

“And in this new religio-political landscape, the Crossroads is center stage.”

Ray Waddle is a free-lance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

Religion and Public Life in the Southern Crossroads is one of nine books planned on the religious politics of the nation’s regions, produced in association with the Hartford Seminary’s Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.