Christian Extremism in the South

Southern United States
Southern United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one of the most thought-provoking and terribly sad things I've read in some time, The destructive myth about religion that Americans disproportionately believe, CJ Werleman addresses a recently published Pew survey about the degree to which people believe that some sort of god is essential to morality. After noting that the United States is an outlier among developed nations (i.e., 53% of U.S. respondents indicate that god-belief is a necessary condition of morality) and commenting on the discrepancy between these findings and data showing that atheists are underrepresented in the prison population, Werleman addresses the regional differences found within the U.S. and the links between religiosity and poverty.

Not coincidentally, the South leads the way in both poverty and Christian extremism. Werleman believes that the Republican Party has successfully convinced voters throughout the South to support policies that maintain poverty and other social ills by playing to their Christian extremist sympathies.

In an earlier piece, I wrote that the primary reason for abject child poverty in these Southern states is that more than a third of children have parents who lack secure employment, decent wages and healthcare. But thanks to religion, these poor saps vote for the party that rejects Medicaid expansion, opposes early education expansion, legislates larger cuts to education, and slashes food stamps to make room for oil and agriculture subsidies on top of tax cuts and loopholes for corporations and the wealthy. Essentially, the Republican Party has convinced tens of millions of Southerners that a vote for a public display of the Ten Commandments is more important to a Christians’ needs than a vote against cuts in education spending, food stamp reductions, the elimination of school lunches and the abolition of healthcare programs.

From my vantage point here in Mississippi, I cannot argue with this. I see it happening all around me practically every day. Our state legislature is far more interested in combating the imagined threat of secularism than in doing anything to reduce child poverty, improve education, or expand access to healthcare.

Isn’t it time to save the South from itself, and/or to save America from the South? These studies and the current political zeitgeist remind us that it’s the religious South that continues to hold the country in some kind of 1860s time warp. While the more secular America is trying to deal intelligently with real problems — taxes, spending, environment, healthcare, education, inequality, and poverty – the South is rooted in religious fanaticism, ancient grudges and demagoguery.

And it isn't just that the South is hopelessly behind much of the rest of the nation. It is really starting to seem like what is happening in many Southern states is adversely affecting the rest of the country, at least it is to those of us who are on the political left.

While the Republican Party retains its monolithic hold on the South, the rest of America remains deprived of universal healthcare, electric cars, sensible gun control laws, carbon emission bans, a progressive tax structure that underpins massive public investment, and collective bargaining laws that would compress the income inequality gap.

Werleman goes so far as to suggest that the United States would look like a developed secular nation where an atheist might even be elected to office at some point if it was not for the stifling Christian extremism of the South. I don't happen to agree with this claim, as I've encountered plenty of Christian extremism in other regions of the country. Bigotry against atheists is by no means confined to the South. Still, Werleman raises some good points.

I fluctuate sometimes on whether I think that it is possible to make real social and political progress without directly addressing Christian extremism vs. whether I think making social and political progress will lead to reductions in Christian extremism. I can see valid arguments on both sides and evidence to support them. Perhaps it isn't so much a question of picking one as much as it is making them both goals. In any case, I'm not sure there are any easy answers in terms of what to do about the South.

H/T to What Would JT Do?