At his Slacktivist site, Fred Clark takes a look at John Turner's reviews of Carolyn Dupont's Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, a book that makes Fred think of Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Dupont finds that the intense biblical literalism of many Southern white evangelicals, wedded to an animus against understanding the call to salvation in anything other than an individualistic sense, led most Southern white evangelicals to back segregation to the hilt during the Civil Rights period.
And so Fred thinks about what this finding means--that "biblical literalism and an intense focus on individual salvation" could lead white Southern evangelicals to be spectacularly wrong not once but twice, regarding key moral debates of their day: first about slavery, then about segregation. And yet the descendants of those Southern white evangelicals, who were spectacularly wrong regarding slavery and segregation, now want to argue that they're suddenly right in the contemporary moral debate about women's equality to men.
Though they're arguing against women's equality on the very same grounds of biblical literalism that have been proven to be seriously awry, when it comes to the case of slavery and segregation . . . . Fred notes,
Here we are, then, in 2013. American culture and American politics continue to be shaped by the lingering effects of slavery and of segregation, but our culture and politics are also being shaped by an ongoing dispute over women’s equality. The trajectory of this dispute is familiar and predictable and it seems clear that we will, eventually, arrive at the same kind of sweeping unanimity we’ve mostly achieved with regard to slavery and segregation. But we’re not there yet. The argument continues and advocates of patriarchy and male superiority are still confident enough that they’re willing — and able — to take a public stance without fear of the widespread condemnation that prevents anyone from taking a similar public stance today in defense of slavery or segregation. We are still in the middle of this dispute and not yet able to look back on it, stating a conclusive verdict.
Many of us, today, are saying that opposition to women’s equality is wrong, but to say so today is to take one side of a dispute that still has two sides to it in a way that the disputes over segregation and slavery no longer do.*
So let’s look at that other side of this dispute. It’s dominated by those making a familiar theological argument. The defense of patriarchy is, largely, a theological defense based on the same theology that was used to defend slavery and to defend segregation. It is a theology based on "biblical literalism and an intense focus on individual salvation."
It is a theological mistake, twice repudiated by history and in the process of being repudiated a third time.
This is valuable analysis. It's valuable because, while it's self-evident to many of us who grew up in the white Southern evangelical culture Dupont is describing and Fred Clark is analyzing, there are still powerful currents in mainstream American culture which want to pretend that the current religious opposition to women's rights and gay rights is in no way at all connected to previous national moral debates about slavery and segregation. During the lead-up to the 2012 elections, more than one centrist Catholic political commentator argued that the shift of many Catholics in the northern part of the U.S. to the GOP from Nixon forward has nothing at all to do with the parallel shift that occurred during the same time frame among white Southern evangelicals who repudiated the Democratic party when it promoted integration and civil rights.
Catholics can go GOP for morally upright and non-racist reasons, even though they're hopping into bed with bunches of other folks going GOP for precisely racist reasons . . . .
To many of us who grew up in the American South and saw what happened during the Civil Rights movement (and in our churches in the same period), it's mind-boggling that many folks outside the South now want to discount the influence of the theology with which we grew up on national political conversations about issues like race or women's rights or gay rights. That influence is palpable to us, and we wonder why our testimony about it is shrugged off by those who call the shots in many of our national debates.
I had dinner on Saturday evening with a cousin of mine who's very active in Democratic politics in Arkansas, and who grew up in south Arkansas, as I did--in the Deep South part of the state, with its strong heritage of slavery prior to the Civil War. He brought up the recent "finding" that white folks who became Republicans in the South in the second half of the 20th century are likely to have roots in slaveholding culture.
We laughed uproariously at this finding, as we talked about it. It took a study to prove something we would gladly have told the researchers from our own experience growing up in the culture being examined by researchers? For many of us who lived through the Civil Rights period in the American South, it's beyond obvious that--just as Fred Clark notes--the resistance to women's and gay rights on the part of many evangelicals today is simply the latest recrudescence of a wrong-headed theological argument supporting segregation that we saw advanced during the period of integration, which in turn echoed a wrong-headed argument based on the same theological grounds that had been advanced to support slavery.
(The asterisk in the paragraph above leads to an important disclaimer noting that American society has hardly achieved the "post-racial" harmony some media gurus--and the Supreme Court?--like to imagine we've achieved with the election of the nation's first African-American president.)