One Nation Divisible

Paul Harvey

We’ve blogged here several times about the “Religion by Region” series of books put out by Rowman & Littlefield (full disclosure: I contributed to the one entitled Religion and Public Life in the South: In the Evangelical Mode, a volume which demonstrates demographically that the “Bible Belt” is not just a myth). I blogged previously about Laurie Maffly-Kipp's lengthy and thoughtful review of all these volumes in the Journal of American History, a couple of issues ago.

Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh have now published their summary volume from this entire project: One Nation Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.

Here’s a summary of the volume:

From the evangelical South to Catholic New England to the "unchurched" Pacific Northwest, regional religious differences have a dramatic impact on public life not only in the regions themselves but also in the United States as a whole. As the interplay between religion and politics continues to dominate public discussion, understanding regional similarities and differences is key to understanding the debate around such national issues as health care, immigration, and the environment. For the first time, One Nation, Divisible shows how geographical religious diversity has shaped public culture in eight distinctive regions of the country and how regional differences influence national politics.

Examining each region in turn, Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh provide historical context, stories that reveal the current cultural dynamics, and analyses of current politics to create rounded portraits of each region. They then present a compelling new account of the evolution of national religious politics since World War II. In doing so, they suggest that the regional religious forces that have fueled recent culture wars may be giving way to a less confrontational style rooted in different regional realities.

Individual chapters follow the regions as outlined in this project, from the Southern “Evangelical Mode,” to the “Fluid Identity” of the Mid-Atlantic region, to the “None of the Aboves” of the relatively religiously indifferent Pacific Northwest region.

Much can be said of this project, and the volume, and I’ll blog on the book further later. What particularly struck me in sampling parts of the book upon arrival was the importance of the “Southern Crossroads” region, including my home region of Oklahoma and Texas. The authors argue in effect that to the extent the culture wars have defined politics from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, they have waged in the Southern Crossroads more than anyplace else: “It is not too much to say that the Crossroads provided the country’s model for religion in public life during [Clinton and Bush], two of its favorite sons. “ The authors then propose the Midwest, where religion is strong but no one tradition is dominant, as a place where the conflicts of the culture wars may be resolved -- but read the book for further detail.

The authors begin this chapter with a story from a Nashville Tennessean reporter, which rings true to what I observed when I was a pup (and I’ll insert my own details below from my younger years in Northwest Oklahoma):

GET US OUT OF THE U.N.! [I grew up driving by that sign almost every day]


These insistent messages were just a normal part of the scenery, like azaleas in bloom, icebox pies, and LSU football [for me, that would be cottonwood trees, Dr. Pepper machines, and Oklahoma football]. But the anger was puzzling. I saw it in letters to the editors, in leaflets left on the car windshield, in the scowls of TV preachers—attacks on “weak sister” liberals [“limousine liberals” in my day], 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. . . 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.

Darren Dochuk’s ongoing work From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, to be published by Norton a year or two from now [hurry the hell up, Darren], ultimately will explain this peculiar regional religious configuration definitively. This book and Darren's work help me understand what was going on in my public high school, for example, when we watched a "debate" between a local Farm Bureau agent, not-too-well "disguised" as a East German Communist propagandist (complete with Col. Klink monocle), and some guy from the local National Guard, on that debate perennial "Communism Versus Capitalism."

By the end, the "East German" debater blew his top, and then revealed himself to all, with a smile. I was geeky enough actually to pay attention, and to wonder why that same Farm Bureau guy was so obssessed with Henry Kissinger and the Trilateral Commission, who of course were determined to take away farm subsidies and send all our money to those Eat Coast bankers (I'll leave you to guess the bankers' religious heritage; it starts with a "J"). Fortunately, most of my class comrades were too busy trying to produce fart sounds with their hands inserted in underarms to pay much attention, and besides, they knew that capitalism was great because it provided their fathers with those wonderful checks from Earl Butz at the Department of Agriculture. But those guys (and gals, presumably) now puzzle the likes of Thomas Frank, who tried (with limited success) to understand them in What's the Matter with Kansas?

Oh, and yes, very public prayer, Protestant hymn singing, and school assembly "devotionals" were standard fare in my high school, Engel v. Vitale be damned.

But I digress. This book serves not only as an excellent introduction to the eight-volume Religion by Region series, but also as a stand-alone work synthesizing a good deal of American religious history and demography. Based on what I know personally of the Southern Crossroads region, I'd say that the astute analysis in that chapter, one that accords with my own experience, speaks well for what readers will find in the rest of the book.

Here’s the table of contents:

Preface Religion by Region The Middle Atlantic: Fount of Diversity
New England: Steady Habits, Changing Slowly
The South: In the Evangelical Mode
The Southern Crossroads: Showdown States
The Pacific: Fluid Identities
The Pacific Northwest: The "None" Zone
The Mountain West: Sacred Landscapes in Tension
The Midwest: The Common Denominator?
Retelling the National Story


Randall said…
Great post.

I did some work about 13 years ago on the John Birchers in Oklahoma and Kansas. "Get US out of the UN!" along with "Support Your Local Law Enforcement Officers" and a ton of other crew-cutted, horn-rimmed glasses slogans bring back the memories.

Still looking for the rumored "Mow Your Lawn, You Damn Commie!"
Anonymous said…
As someone whose theological, intellectual, and cultural development has taken place in roughly equal parts in the South, Southern California, the Eastern seaboard, the Pacific Northwest, and most recently the Midwest, I can definitely applaud the impetus behind these two projects. I'm interested not only in the ways that these regions diverge, but also how they've influenced each other within particular traditions. Within evangelicalism, for instance, how have a Willow Creek and a Saddleback shaped each other? Are Vineyards and other relatively nondenominational communities in the Pacific Northwest more influenced by their Midwestern brethren or by their relatively liberal environs, and vice versa? How have transamerican influences on U.S. Catholicism and Pentacostalism played out differently in particular regions because of their unique histories vis-a-vis race and ethnicity?

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