Sunday, February 19, 2012

Red vs. Blue: Private Protestants vs. Public Protestants

Cultural conflicts arise in a number of social areas. Generally the disputes are easily categorized as a red/Republican viewpoint opposed by a blue/Democratic position. Religious beliefs are generally at the core of the conflict. While today it is easy to fall into the habit of associating Democrats with a secular approach and Republicans with an evangelical approach, Collin Woodard provides us with background information that indicates the division originated long ago from differing Protestant beliefs. 

Woodard has produced a must-read book: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

The theme of Woodard’s book can be summarized simply: the original population of the North American continent was by discrete immigrations that installed distinct regional cultures which persist to this day. The two regions/populations that where most influential in setting up the cultural/religious battlefield we live in today are what Woodard refers to as Yankeedom (New England and the upper Midwest) and Borderlanders (Greater Appalachia). Interestingly, both groups of immigrants were disciples of John Calvin, but each took his teachings in very different directions.

Woodard describes the Puritan Yankees as extreme examples of Public Protestantism. Recall that Calvin preached predestination: the fate of everyone’s soul, redemption or damnation, was determined before birth.

"From the time of the Puritans, the Yankee religious ethos focused on the salvation of society, not of the individual. Indeed, the Puritans believed every soul’s status had already been determined. All that was left to do was to carry out God’s work and try to make the world a more perfect and less sinful place....this led Yankees to embrace all sorts of utopian missions, from building a ‘City on the Hill’ in Massachusetts to creating a model society in Utah based on the Book of Mormon to ‘saving’ other parts of the continent by assimilating them into enlightened Yankee culture."

The settlers of Greater Appalachia are the extreme example of Private Protestantism. They brought with them a strong dependence on individual responsibility, with respect to both society and religion, and a fierce distrust of anyone who might try to tell them what to do—particularly governments.

"Whereas Private Protestants emphasized individual responsibility for one’s lot in life, Public Protestants tried to harness government to improve society and the quality of life. These conflicting worldviews put the two blocs on a political collision course."

It would be the Civil War that would set the stage for the coalescing of multiple viewpoints into the two opposing camps we have today. The war itself forced groups with quite different philosophies into sharing one of two common plans of action and one of two fates, but it was the aftermath that cemented the alliances.

The victorious North, led by the Yankees, tried to impose their culture and views on the defeated South after the war. This led only to resistance and an increase in animosity between the two cultures. After the "occupiers" pulled out the region reverted back to its own ways, with the exception that diverse Southern populations had grown tightly knit in social, religious, and political views.

The dominant Southern religions were all now in agreement.

"....[they] believed the world was inherently corrupt and sinful, particularly after the shocks of the Civil War. Their emphasis wasn’t on the social gospel—an effort to transform the world in preparation for Christ’s coming—but rather on personal salvation, pulling individual souls into the lifeboat of right thinking before the Rapture swept the damned away. Private Protestants had no interest in changing society but rather emphasized the need to maintain order and obedience."

This attitude fit perfectly the needs of the political cast that had always controlled the region and wished to continue to do so.

"Slavery, aristocratic rule, and the grinding poverty of most ordinary people....weren’t evils to be confronted but rather the reflection of a divinely sanctioned hierarchy to be maintained at all costs against the Yankee heretics."

The two sides evolved quite differently since the Civil War. The Yankee interest in education and social progress inevitably led to a weakening of the ties between social and religious beliefs. Scientific progress would also diminish religious fervor, but the belief in the ties between community, government, and social progress persisted.

Social and scientific progress was encouraged and lauded by one group, contested and rejected by the other. Woodard suggests the Scopes trial in 1925 was an inflection point in the history of the two camps.

"The Public Protestant majorities....assumed the fire-and-brimstone crowd was ruined, their irrational beliefs exposed as superstition, their authoritarian tactics as violations of American values."

Having declared victory, the mainline Protestant churches continued to decline in membership and the advocacy of the secularists also diminished. Atheism and agnosticism are not beliefs that are consistent with militancy. Most people were happy to keep the state free from religion and let individuals follow whatever path they chose.

Meanwhile, something quite different was going on in the other camp.

"But the fundamentalists spent the thirties and forties organizing themselves, building Bible fellowships, Christian colleges, and a network of gospel radio stations. Unnoticed by North America’s opinion elite, their numbers grew through the 1950s....Behind the veneer of a prosperous and content postwar United States, a full-scale cultural war was quietly brewing. In the 1960s it would finally explode."

How delightful to learn that the supposedly godless social agenda of the Democrats is actually derived from the communitarian philosophy of the Calvinist Puritans.

Woodard’s book is chock full with insights. He even explains how the Yankees turned the West Coast into Democratic blue. But that is a tale for another day.

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