Reimagining and Mediating a Progressive Christian South

Reimagining and Mediating a Progressive Christian South February 6, 2020
The following essay is excerpted from the recently released Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change. I highly recommend the volume as a whole. It’s the creative work of many scholars examining how creative social change takes place at the intersection of popular culture and the civic imagination.

From our forms of speech, to our religious commitments, to our sense of communal identity, we are a nation of diverse regional cultures. And part of regional imagination is recognizing differences among those regions. As a Christian pastor, I have recently experienced how the interplay of regionalism and new media informs our civic and religious imagination. That’s the story I wish to tell here. As a Gen Xer raised on a farm in rural Iowa, my move to Fayetteville, Arkansas, constituted a transition from one significant regional culture to another.

To use Colin Woodard’s (2012) memorable remapping of the American “nations,” I actually moved not from the North to the South but from the Midlands, where people designate their ethnicity by their Euro- pean or other ancestry (German, Norwegian, Polish, Vietnamese, Paki- stani), to Greater Appalachia, “rendered perfectly in the Census Bureau’s map of the largest reported ancestry group by county: its inhabitants virtually the only counties in the country where a majority answered ‘American.’” As the Midlands and the South have become more diverse, shaped by global immigration and internal migration, their religious landscape has also changed: increasing numbers in both places self- identify as secular or nonreligious. There is a new mind of the South, captured succinctly by Southerner Tracy Thompson (2014), who writes,

“[There is a] mismatch of history and identity that so many Southerners up through my generation have had, this vague sense of cognitive dis- sonance that comes with growing up in a world where nothing you see around you quite fits with the picture of history made available to you.”

Lyndon B. Johnson famously remarked as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that “we have lost the South for a generation” (Obama 2014). His prediction was premature, but by the time I arrived in Arkansas, it had become a reality. Mark Pryor’s (Democratic) Senate seat had flipped to (Republican) Tom Cotton, and in 2017, “in a region stretching from the high plains of Texas to the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas, Republicans controlled not only every Senate seat, but every governor’s mansion and every state legislative body” (Cohn 2014). Regional imagination is finally catching up with shifting political reality, but it surprised many in a state that proudly birthed Bill Clinton.

Many also believe that the United States is quickly losing religios- ity, with significant percentages of the emerging generations identifying with no specific religious tradition (Pew Forum 2015). For those who remain committed to the Christian faith but whose civic imagination aligns with the progressives (a larger percentage of whom are “nones”; D. Williams 2017), some basic and essential questions arise. Does it mat- ter whether Christianity offers anything other than secular humanism? Charles Taylor (2007) maps out the new conditions of secularity: “The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a soci- ety in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibil- ity among others” (3). Taylor is describing a world that is increasingly secular not in the nonreligious sense of that term but in the sense that many forms of religiosity can live side by side and even mutually sup- port one another. Recall the classic dictum of Christian humanist Niko- lai Grundtvig, who frequently stated, “Human first, then Christian.” The world increasingly recognizes shared interests across multiple religious and secular perspectives.

Yet for Grundtvig, there was still “then Christian.” What is this “then Christian”? The answer hovers around issues of resistance and sanctuary, both resources in Christianity not as clearly present in or adjacent to vari- ous kinds of humanism. Dominant forms of Christianity in the United States allow a co-optation by “moral majorities” who believe the perpetu- ation of racism, sexism, and homophobia are part and parcel of the main- tenance of Christianity as the dominant religion. In my (progressive) way of imagining, Christianity contains unique resources for repentance and resistance, for giving preference to the poor and migrants, and for radical neighbor love that overturns the morality of capitalist self-interest.

Many progressive Southerners feel as if they are engaged in the Sisyphean task of repeatedly disambiguating their regional identity fromthe stereotypes of Southerners. According to Brooks Blevins (2009), “Arkansas has for one reason or another undergone more caricaturing and stereotyping in the American imagination than has just about any other state” (4). The main negative stereotype that makes an average Arkansan self-conscious is that they are low class, uneducated, and poor. Arkansans have learned that such stereotypes are dealt with most effectively through humor. Blevins ends the introduction to his book with the following rejoinder: “Even if we don’t get to the very bottom of this, perhaps we’ll be better able to laugh at ourselves. . . . At the very least, you found a friend to read this book to you, and I found a friend to write it. Yee-haw, indeed” (10).

Such representational hyperawareness has significant political ramifications. For example, at a recent rally in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Senator Cotton said,

Go home tonight and turn on one of the nighttime comedy shows. Tomorrow morning, turn on one of the cable morning-news shows. This Saturday, watch “Saturday Night Live.” . . . All the high wardens of popu- lar culture in this country, they love to make fun of Donald Trump, to mock him, to ridicule him. They make fun of his hair, they make fun of the color of his skin, they make fun of the way he talks—he’s from Queens, not from Manhattan. They make fun of that long tie he wears, they make fun of his taste for McDonald’s. . . . What I don’t think they realize is that out here in Arkansas and the heartland and the places that made a dif- ference in that election, like Michigan and Wisconsin, when we hear that kind of ridicule, we hear them making fun of the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we think. (quoted in Toobin 2017)

Although this is a breathtaking leap, Cotton is right about one thing: inasmuch as Southerners perceive themselves to be subject to ridicule by the “high wardens of popular culture,” they then are tempted to imagine a kind of solidarity between Trump and Southerners, even if on every other level—his wealth, his (im)morality—he diverges from a Southern Christian imaginary. Their solidarity under ridicule unites them, and this interplay of the regional social imaginary with mass media content informs their voting habits and political preferences even more than their religious commitments.

During the February 2017 congressional recess, Republican Cotton hosted a town hall meeting in Springdale, Arkansas. Springdale is part of the “new” or emerging South: population seventy thousand, 40 per- cent Latino, 8 percent Pacific Islander. It would certainly fit in Tracy Thompson’s chapter “Salsa with Your Grits” in her The New Mind of the South. Cotton was taking a lot of heat, along with many other elected officials, for his support of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the proposal of the RAISE Act that would dramatically curtail immigration and refugee resettlement.

Although historically the landing place for migrants from all over the world, especially Europe, America did not begin to resettle significant numbers of refugees until it was forced to by the Holocaust and the great need to provide a safe place for Jews to flee during World War II. Since World War II, the United States has slowly and steadily increased its commitment to offering refuge to those fleeing various dangers around the world. Partnering with the Office of the United Nations High Com- missioner for Refugees, over the last decade, the United States has reset- tled on average around seventy-five thousand refugees. These refugees come to America because each year the executive designates admissions levels. One of nine primarily faith-based refugee resettlement agencies, one of the largest of which is the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), oversees the actual resettlement.

In 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis entered the global conversation, a large group of us in Northwest Arkansas began looking into establishing a refugee resettlement center. In just a year, we built a non- profit, and in 2016, we began welcoming refugees. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and his first action in January 2017 was to an- nounce a Muslim ban, which also paused the entire refugee resettlement program. Suddenly, we dropped from 110,000 refugees arriving in the last year of the Obama administration to fewer than 45,000 refugees in the first year of the Trump administration (and less than 15,000 in fiscal 2020).

Because we had recently begun resettling these refugees to Northwest Arkansas and because our congregation participates in a lot of social justice ministry in alignment with immigrants and refugees, my presence at the 2017 Springdale town hall was essential. I got there early and stood in line with the thousands of other (mostly anti-Cotton) attend- ees. It was exhilarating and frightening: a media frenzy. All the national networks were there.

To my surprise, I had the opportunity to ask a question at the town hall, advocating for expanded refugee resettlement not only in our state but in our nation, and I did so out of the biblical imagination that recommends providing hospitality for the stranger, for “you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Imagine thousands of attendees in a high school auditorium in Springdale, Arkansas (which incidentally has more Marshallese and Latino students than Anglo), chanting support for refugees and immigrants. I responded to Cotton’s characterization of Muslims as a threat with “We love Muslims!” The noise at that point was deafening. Surprised by the breadth and depth of the progressive (Christian) support for immigrants and refugees in our state (remember those media elites and their perceptions of us), the media followed up with several days of televised interviews. Standing in front of an MSNBC camera, I again became mindful of this deep truth: when Southerners speak on the national stage, we are always concerned for our image. There is this representational hyperawareness. I wanted to make the South, or at least Arkansas, look good. I wanted to do them proud. We don’t want to feed into the stereotypes. I’m not sure all regional peoples feel this way when they emerge on the national stage, but I know Arkansans do. “Arkansas people remain first and foremost cognizant of the state’s place in the American consciousness” (Blevins 2009, 186), and many progressive Christians are equally cognizant of national perceptions of Christianity.

The Southern imagination functions in a circular fashion, with the South mirroring to the world and then sometimes undermining and sometimes reinforcing the world’s imagination of the South. So Arkansans were aware of not only how they looked to the world (including the frustration by some that someone with Cotton’s views represents us in the Senate) but also the outside perspective on us, their fascination with the town hall’s size and tenor, and Rachel Maddow’s surprise that an Arkansas pastor would make a comparison between the town hall and Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Lords. Similarly, the progressive Christian community frequently encounters surprise when articulating their faith: “You’re a Christian and you believe that?”

The media layers and recenters regional and religious imaginations, with institution building, television and newspaper presence, and new social media platforms all interlocking in a seamless fashion to energize a religiously informed civic imagination. So, for example, the development of our refugee resettlement agency, Canopy NWA, only happened because we began local conversations after a Twitter post from the governor of the state opposing refugee resettlement; our efforts were strengthened and streamlined as we organized like-minded people of faith to form the nonprofit and solicit resources. Our presence on televi- sion and radio and in the newspaper (Jordan 2017) has meant that our model is inspiring others to replicate the development in other locations, while widespread media coverage affects our own and external stereotypes of our region. Transform how the wider world perceives the Southern Christian imagination and you might expand the civic imagi- nation on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. John Edge (2017) de- scribes such a transition in his recent book on the changes in Southern food culture:

The South was once a place that did not brook intrusion. Now it’s the region with the highest immigration rates. When I was a boy in 1970s Georgia, a barbecue sandwich and a Brunswick stew with soda crackers was my go-to meal. Jess (my son) prefers tacos al pastor, hold the cilantro, and cheese dip with fryer-hot tortilla chips. In his South, Punjabi truck stop owners in Arkansas fry okra for turban-wearing reefer jockeys. And Korean bakers in Alabama turn out sweet potato-gorged breakfast pas- tries. His South is changing. For the better, mostly. In fits and starts, yes. New peoples and new foods and new stories are making their marks on the region. In those exchanges, much is gained. What was a once a region of black and white, locked in a struggle for power, has become a society of many hues and many hometowns. His generation now weaves new narra- tives about what it means to be Southern, about what it takes to claim this place as their own. Given time to reconcile the mistakes my generation made with the beauty we forged amid adversity, his generation might challenge the region of our birth to own up to its promise. (350)

Consider the growth of Indivisible, an activist group started after the presidential election of 2016, which is locally focused and has imple- mented a defensive congressional advocacy strategy to protect their val- ues. A founding member, Billy Fleming, is actually from Arkansas, and their model for developing the Indivisible movement was to publish reproducible resources (an “indivisible guide”) that could fuel a progressive grassroots network of local groups to resist the Trump agenda ( Although the guide was published online and designed for the entire social media network, by offering a replicable model that local groups could put in place in each district, Indivisible had become—within months—a national movement with chapters (sometimes multiple chapters) in each US congressional district. In Northwest Arkansas, the chapter meets regularly at our church building. We find creative ways weekly and monthly to fuse the church’s mission with Indivisible’s advocacy activities. Clearly, going mass media actually facilitates going local if those using new social media forms are savvy. Indivisible goes big by going small with national issues energized at the local level.

In my work, I have learned one mantra from the Arkansas United Community Coalition, an immigrant rights advocacy group. They fre- quently say, “Nothing about us without us,” a slogan first popularized in the disability rights movement (Charlton 2000, 3). As a white pastor in a predominantly white church who spends significant time in refu- gee and immigrant spaces, I have learned how to listen, support, walk alongside, amplify. It’s a slogan I wish other prominent leaders might heed: whether it’s the Evangelicals publishing their Nashville Statement or multiple attorney generals and President Trump threatening to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, they should live by the slogan “Nothing about us without us” coupled with Grundtvig’s slogan “Human first.”

Christians hoping their message might be life-giving and attractive can learn much from both slogans, not the smallest of those lessons being that the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Mark 10:31). It’s awfully hard to build a progressive Christian movement when the largest and loudest Christian voices encourage strategies quite op- posite those of progressives—and Jesus. Nevertheless, it has probably always been so. Effective progressive movements find ways to keep their imagination indigenous to the region (the actual region rather than the stereotype), open to the resonances of the wider movements with which they partner, amplified by new media in order to be even more effectively local, cognizant of the traditions of all, and respectful of the humanity in each.

We might remember that “there has been consensus for several decades among political historians of the early modern period that European theories of resistance found their first articulation in the Lutheran tradition” (DeJonge 2019, 198). One significant moment in the Reformation was the emperor’s push early on to suppress reform. When Martin Luther died in 1546, Charles V published the Augsburg Interim, which put all German lands back under Roman Catholic rule. All the cities and towns acquiesced with the exception of one—Magdeburg. The pastors of Magdeburg published a confessional document explaining why their magistrates were right to resist. Not as well known as some other confessional documents of the early modern period, the Magde- burg Confession functioned as a first example of regional resistance to empire and became a source for other articulations of resistance, such as the Declaration of Independence. It informed the thought of such a significant resister as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (quoted in DeJonge 2019), who wrote,

There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis- à-vis the state: first, questioning the state as to the legitimate state char- acter of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Let us work for the good of all.” These are both ways in which the church, in its freedom, conducts itself in the interest of a free state. In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect either of these duties. The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the vic- tims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action on the part of the church. (210)

To claim that all forms of resistance have Christian origins is a stretch, but Christianity provided a very significant resource for resistance in the West. Consider sanctuary. Of the many German cities, only one resisted the Augsburg Interim. During the Holocaust, a small remnant (the Confessing Church) resisted the Nazis. So also with sanctuary: a small percentage of the whole of American congregations offer sanctu- ary. But repentance is in the Christian tradition. The first call of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, in fact, states that the whole life of the Christian is to be one of repentance. So when Christians heed their own tradition, they can confess their failure to live into their own best practices and recenter themselves on the social imaginary that defines them.

Sanctuary may become even more important in this next era, as immigrants and others seeking refuge approach the church in their time of need. The original Sanctuary Movement was “a religious and political campaign to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict in their homelands during the 1980s” (De La Torre 2017, 130) Reverend John Fife, one of the architects of the Sanctuary Move- ment, still works along the border, leading efforts to protect the undocu- mented in their perilous travels. Fife, a strategic troublemaker, adopts a peculiar way of practicing “then Christian.” In a nation that has for decades understood Christianity to be the dominant cultural form of religiosity, it may be surprising to lift up disruption of the status quo as an especially Christian practice, but nevertheless, there it is—part of being Christian is being “a royal pain in the ass . . . shout[ing] from the mountain top what is supposed to be kept silent . . . audaciously refus- ing to stay in [the] assigned place [and] . . . upsetting the prevailing Panopticon social order designed to maintain the law and order of the privileged” (De La Torre 2017, 210). In this instance, practicing sanctu- ary, providing actual physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants or refugees, is both human and Christian at the same time: human be- cause it is simply doing the right thing and Christian because it uses the religious space itself (sanctuary) precisely in the way it is named—as sanctuary. When sanctuary breaks the law, precisely there it is sanctuary. A community wrestling with how to do it and how much to sacrifice doing it will expand the progressive Christian social imaginary in ways we have yet to imagine. And if you make fun of us for our disruptive activity, we will join you and exercise self-mockery, which we will then use strategically to our advantage.

(all footnotes contained in the complete volume)

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