Last March C.J. Werleman wrote a piece for Salon.com called “The destructive myth about religion” where he asked his readers a question that is fairly central to the contemporary American “culture wars.” When a critic asks if it is “time to save the South from itself, and/or to save America from the South?” he is speaking with thousands of voices that might have never enunciated this, but feel it or know it to be true. But reading that question in print should unsettle at least a few readers. Even if it is delivered earnestly, such a demand is freighted with political import that, at best, exacerbates regional polemics between the right and the left and does next to nothing to raise understanding of the deepening cultural schism that has left American legislation at sixes and sevens.
Getting Camels through Needle-eyes…
One of the most common misunderstandings that one might hear is that religion keeps people mired in poverty. This is rendered a truism in discussions, even if by merely accepting the highly religious demographics that are also highly wealthy or secular outliers that are mired in poverty. For instance Judaism, whose adherents are almost five times as likely to make $100,000 per year than those of Historically Black churches, buck this trend, as do the Chinese as a nation, who hover around $10,000 per capita income every year yet are as godless as the French in the Pew “Importance of Religion” study.
But given this data, isn’t it just as reasonable to accept that religion, rather than being a significant driver for poverty, is an answer to poverty? Even if we accept the claim that the religious tend to vote against the welfare state in the South, the idea that snipping strings in the social safety-net is driver for poverty profoundly misrepresents the origins of poverty, which is determined by a host of factors including employment in skilled trades, overall employment, and minimum wage laws. Lagging in all of these categories can result in poverty, the crippling effects of which social programs are meant to ameliorate.
In a nation where the difference between the wealthy and the poor has gone from a gash to a hatchet wound, one has to wonder if the benefits of America’s relatively tenuous social safety net, which are palpable to the poor and great for staving off abject poverty, has much to say about repairing the damage done to the working class in the last thirty years. One has to wonder how much salve SNAP, unemployment insurance, and welfare — the kinds of programs that traditionally conservative Southern politicians tend to target — can apply to a lower class in economic triage. Pointing out that the wealth divide in America is regional is normal. Poverty remains a persistently greater Southern issue, while wealth is increasingly centralized in the Northeast. However, no religion article from the “culture-files” in various mainstream democratic publications could ever be truly instructive on this material fact.
Hidden in the Pew reports on religion are powerful contradictions to claims that the religious in the South vote against themselves. Even while Pew data supports the claim that the South is the most religious, part of that is the fact that 57% of Black Americans, who are the most religious group in the United States, embracing the importance of religion at a 79% rate, call the South their home. At the same time, African Americans are an cornerstone in the Democratic stronghold, voting for Democrats 87% of the time. Despite their religiosity as a demographic, African Americans vote for those policies that do create a social safety-net. African Americans are overwhelmingly the most religious group in the United States, they are also overwhelmingly Southern, and overwhelmingly democratic and thus as a demographic they spike the principal that the religious allow religion to paint their politics republican colors.
Know Thyself, Know thy Region …
In light of this, it is difficult to accept that religion explains poverty because the religious vote for the holiest candidates rather than the one who will materially improve their lot in life. If there is a religious taint in this dialogue, it is not from the religious but the rational: it is the left’s. Our current view is paradoxically Protestant in how it takes religiosity itself a kind of inherent personal defect, an original sin if you will, that is a virtual predestination of poverty. But such an attitude broaches on a second connotation invoked when we question whether we need to “save the South from itself.” An urgent need to save any group from itself is the vocalization of a smarmy pedantry inbuilt to the cultural dialogue. With roots running deep into the bedrock of ideological study, the familiar cant is this; the religious in general, particularly the religious working class, and even more specifically the Republican working class, vote against their interests. We the left are the less deceived, and it is our job to shepherd them from the their ignorance of science and reason. As the one decontextualized quote from Marx that still has real legs with the American left states, religion, after all, is the opiate of the masses. But it is also the “sigh of the oppressed.”
Indubitably, to borrow dense concepts from philosophers like Marx, without understanding the body of work those concepts constitute is an even deeper sin. Ideologies, if we can use such a term, are as responsive to history as they are constitutive of history. What I mean by this is that belief in any guiding principle is measured by how well that principle can give meaning to marginalization of any sort. Such a notion is regularly accepted in the United States when the conversation turns to more neutral topics, such as the relief of the Exodus myth in prevalent in slavery era African-American spirituals, which is generally considered to have been beneficial, a kind of cultural succor necessary in the worst conditions of oppression.
What is more, ideology can only exist so long as it is useful as an explanation for marginalization. This is suggested by the more esoteric Marxian dictum that progress in this era will continue even as “all that is solid melts into air,” including ideologies and their “trains of ancient and venerable prejudices.” And it is confirmed by the Pew Study, which shows how the most urban and wealthy places like Paris, London, and Rome, which existed as rich, civic bodies during the height of religion as a social organon, are less religious than relatively rural or suburban places developed long after them. There is a buried cable between wealth and apostasy here that we miss. Arguing that the South is relatively poor because they are religious is like saying that flood-waters bring rain.
It is true that the most impoverished places are the most religious, but is it not then equally true that attempting to lift these regions out of poverty would be the next logical step rather than attempting to lift them out of religion? What we are talking about is the hard work of being a progressive. It is difficult to acknowledge that the greatest labor injustices in America occur in the most conservative places. It is difficult to fight for someone who is culturally dissimilar. At the same time, it is the one way to lift everyone out of poverty, and perhaps generate options. Walking across the line, for someone who was raised in the deeply religious South, and was never given the opportunity that the scornful and toffee-nosed Columbia or Berkeley grads, is an exercise in self-annulment. It is an abandonment of the culture that literally sustained your family history.
The ideology that religion has cornered the market on irrationality elides how truly irrational even the most basic aspects of democracy and economics have become in the United States. Moreover, in a rather alarming turn, the idea points the way away from certain problems in the economy and toward false religious ones, which become the red herring of inequality. The immense, actual threat to the political voice of working-class Southerners is not religion, but class-antagonistic and racist policies that result in a democracy that is as unevenly developed in the United States as its geography of wealth. The corridors of biotechnology, computer technology, and finance capital that create the regional wealth gaps we champion as the vindication for secular politics are feedback loop of success. Any culture they adopt on the side of worshiping the almighty dollar, will appear equally enriching as secularism.
Democratic inequalities are the real, human product of a concentrated program of gerrymandering in the South, which has resulted in a situation where districting maps are increasingly drawn along racial barriers resulting in conservative spreads where a mere 50% majority could result in 62-77% representation in North Carolina. Or Louisiana, where a 40% democratic turnout will result in 80% of state representation marching to Washington under a red republican banner. Or Texas, who voted 46% of the time for Obama, but cannot muster more than 15% democratic representation in the senate. Voters are being systematically denied access to the polls in an era of new Jim Crow. And income and educational inequalities require concrete and expensive mobilization to cease swelling tide of racial and class segregation in Southern schools and put all students on equal footing in the battle of ideas and money that will come later in life — after all, if Christian, private, and charter schools do anything detrimental to society it is that they deny access to the same quality of education to those who cannot afford them. They are less a bastion of religious indoctrination than 21st century citadels against Brown vs The Board.
Such a call to real democratic work is more difficult to accept than the light mantle worn by the humanist critics banging the gavel in the court of reason. The former course requires concrete commitment to federal action that ensures that all people in the United States are actually given equal access to democracy, rather than mere hand-wringing, patronization, and reproach. But the latter, which is practically equivalent to taking a break from buying things in the boutique boroughs of silicon valley or Lower Manhattan to deign with an opinion on why your poor, religious neighbors should stop having children and fix their car, is seductive because it feels so just sitting in the temples of what one religion dubbed Mammon.
Therein lies the most troubling facet of the culture wars to this writer. The Atheistic (or at least anti-theistic) and rational position often reveals a smug loathing for Americans in poverty rather than a genuine concern for the welfare of those who find solace in religion. How often is an anti-religious piece barbed with flip comments about wealth and a obtuse savior complex that moralizes the unbalanced collective fortunes of the United States along secular and regional lines. In a rush to divide the Untied States into two, post-Civil War and Post-Civil Rights regions, real practical spatial programs are ignored, and the battle lines between North and South, Manhattan and the Bible Belt are saturated with the falser consciousness than any Baptist preacher could conjure. Lost to it is the political consciousness of where wealth comes from and who, in the United States, it has ultimately served.