Pews, politics and Virginia’s “grits line”

RiverineSys photo JPGAs I have explained before, I rarely get to linger over a dead-tree-pulp edition of The Washington Post, the newspaper that looms over the city in which I work. The reason is that I live in an old blue-collar suburb just south of Baltimore, one that is not considered worthy of Post home delivery, like the high-class suburbs not far from here.

I see the newspaper a lot at work, of course. I teach journalism in Washington. But I work at a computer most of the day (you will be shocked to know that) and my tree-pulp-reading habits remain linked to home and the commuter train.

But yesterday I spent eight or nine hours sitting in BWI Airport watching an amazing storm and the aftermath — long lines of people with messed-up flight plans. The long and the short of it is that I had lots of time to read newspapers, and I am not writing this post from Southern California. This is why God made speaker phones and put nifty little cameras in the new Apple computers.

All of which is to say that — because I was reading a real copy of the Post — I was able to see what I believe is a ghost in the newspaper’s post-election coverage.

There was, you see, this story by reporters Brigid Schulte and Chris L. Jenkins that ran with this headline: “So Close, Yet So Far Apart: Once Solidly Part of the South, the Old Dominion Now Encompasses a Widening Cultural Chasm.” If you read the online version, you may have not have taken the extra second and clicked on the button that showed you some of the graphics that were displayed prominently in the tree-pulp edition next to the big red map of Virginia with a few spots of blue. That was, naturally, the map showing the GOP-Democratic split in that razor-thin U.S. Senate election.

A tagline noted: “Virginia has become almost two states — conservative, down-home southern Virginia and liberal, transient Northern Virginia.” I do not know why the “s” in “southern” is small and the “N” in “Northern” is large, unless it’s because the North is real because it’s in the circulation zone of the Post.

The true dividing line, it appears, is the Rappahannock River (pictured). That, we are told, is the “grits line.”

There really isn’t much about religion in the story itself. That’s kind of my point.

Nevertheless, the first graphic you see states that 32 percent of people Northern Virginia go to church once a week and, in the rest of Virginia, it’s 49 percent. You will also not be surprised to know that people in NoVa have much higher incomes and are three times more likely to be college graduates.

Thus, we have this showdown:

… Republican George Allen won by wide margins in 92 of the state’s 134 localities but lost the race because Democrat James Webb swept the densely populated Washington suburbs. At the same time, Northern Virginians voted against the amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, but the measure passed largely because people south of the Rappahannock voted overwhelmingly for it.

At Allen’s concession speech, two supporters turned to each other in disgust. “That’s it,” said one. “I’m moving to South Carolina.”

In interviews with dozens of Virginians on both sides of the divide, each saw the other part of the state almost as a foreign country, with an alien culture.

… And neither side really “gets” the other.

“We don’t have a lot of tolerance for people up there. But I think we’ve got more tolerance of y’all than y’all do of us,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Roanoke-based Democratic consultant who helped Mark R. Warner, Timothy M. Kaine and now Webb get what he calls “the Bubba vote.” “There’s a certain air of intellectual superiority up there that comes with stereotyping us as being hillbillies.”

So what is at the heart of this cultural divide?

fall98vThe story mentions the issue of gay marriage. It also mentions a long history of racism. That’s about it.

So it’s the smart Yankees who have moved to the D.C. suburbs vs. the old-guard Bubbas. But you know that there has to be more to this story than that. Did Post pollsters ask any other revealing questions? Come to think of it, the racism angle is simply assumed — with no new poll data or any other contemporary hook.

Are other cultural issues involved? Are the people in Northern Virgnia pews different than those in southern Virginia pews? There are people out there who voted against same-sex marriage who also voted for Webb. Who are they? Are they — as would seem likely — white populist evangelicals and African American evangelicals? Is this an intrastate culture war, as the Post implies, still linked to race?

Well I’m curious, as someone who used to live in the Southern Highlands (pictured) just a smidgen over the Virginia line, down where lots of red-pew Republicans have, for many generations, put Abraham Lincoln at the top of their hero lists.

I think the Post needs to chase this ghost, which we could call the ghost of populist Southern Christian culture — black and white. That ghost is out there, in all of its complex glory.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Peter

    What I find interesting is the fact that the line of the “grits belt” was once much farther Sorth than it is today. I lived in Manassas, VA from ’80 until ’91, and the culture there was distinctly “Southern, Religious & Conservative.” This started to change toward the end of my time in Northern Virginia. I have been back on several occasions, and it is distinctly *not* “Southern, Religious & Conservative” now.

    This Southward creeping cultural shift will likely be more evident as the years pass. For instance, Raleigh, NC (and the surrounding Triangle area), where I lived for 5 years, is very similar to Northern Virginia in more ways than I can count – this was not the case 20 years ago. Charlotte, NC is trending in this direction as people migrate South … and I fully expect the cultural climate there to change soon.

    Atlanta, while decidedly “Southern” now, is trending in the opposite direction with corporate development and relocation.

    I make my home in the middle of the truly red, very Southern, state of South Carolina. Columbia, SC hasn’t drawn large corporate business interests, and so the demographic change hasn’t happened here and I don’t think it will. Charleston, on the other hand, while still decidedly Republican, is attracting lots of relocated West Coasters and Northeasters; I do notice a cultural change there.

  • Peter

    In the first sentence of the comment above, the interesting word, Sorth, should read North. I don’t think that I could have thought of a more confusing misspelling if I had tried.

  • C. Wingate

    Most likely they capitalized “Northern Virginia” because locally it does refer to those few northernmost counties which are DC suburbs. Northern Virginia by nearly every measure substantially unlike the rest of the state, with a heavy dose of immigrants (both from abroad and from out of state). Religiously it is hard to characterize, except that it is far more mixed than the rest of the state; one can see in the Valpo maps, for instance, that it stands out as a little island of Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. That said, however, it tends to be conservative too; for instance, in Anglicanland one sees Truro and the Falls Church show up constantly.

    The immigrant views are easily explained: besides the Latino flood that affects many urban areas, the DC area as a whole has been the landing place for refugees of all nations. Arlington, for example, is known for its large Vietnamese population.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    “Arlington, for example, is known for its large Vietnamese population.”

    Until they were priced out:

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  • MJBubba

    I can echo Peter’s comment about the shifting dividing line. I lived in Richmond in the 1980s. It was explained to me when I got there that the Mason-Dixon Line had moved to the Potomac River after WWII, but that in the 1970s it shifted again to the Occoquan River. By the end of the 1980s, the growth of the D.C. suburbs made it apparant that another shift was in the making.
    And it is true that folk from Roanoke and thereabouts are viewed in Northern Virginia as backward hillbillies, and are asked routinely if they are snake handlers.
    Regarding the capitalization of Northern Virginia, this likely springs from actions of the state bureaucracies in Richmond. Many of them divide Virginia into districts for administrative purposes. They give all kinds of different district names to various portions of the state, but they uniformly call the D.C. suburbs the “Northern Virginia District.” Northern Virginia is seriously suspect to the rest of the state (for good reason).