A few recent items coming through the RSS feed seem connected. Let’s see if we can follow that thread.
We’ll start with this piece from Chris Ladd, “Pastors, Not Politicians, Turned Dixie Republican.” (It still seems odd to me that Ladd is writing about the history of the religious right for Forbes magazine. This apparently seemed odd to Forbes too, since the last time we linked to one of Ladd’s perceptive essays there, the 1-percenter-wanna-be glossy un-published the piece without explanation.)
Ladd centers white Christianity as the driving force behind the partisan switch that turned the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Calhoun. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Ladd argues, succeeded at the top of the ticket, convincing anti-civil rights white voters to cast their first-ever votes for a Republican president, but the thorough reverse-the-polarity switch across the South — the switch from domination by We Love Andrew Johnson Democrats to domination by We Hate Lyndon Johnson Republicans — was a bottom-up process led by local clergy, not a top-down strategy implemented by savvy politicians in Washington:
Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980, and never quite figured out how to build a persuasive appeal to voters there. Every cynical strategy cooked up in a Washington boardroom withered under local conditions. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church. …
It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.” Southern conservatives discovered that they could preserve white nationalism through a proxy fight for Christian Nationalism. They came to recognize that a weak, largely empty Republican grassroots structure in the South was ripe for takeover and colonization.
Read the whole thing. He names names and holds receipts, and I think he’s particularly sharp on the Billy-to-Franklin transition and transformation that makes the white evangelicalism of 2019 so much uglier and more vicious than its mid- to late-20th century form.
Ladd’s phrase there — “white angst over lost cultural supremacy” — is the theme that echoes through these other recent items. Consider, for example, this story from Maine, which shows that Ladd’s focus on Southern white Christian nationalism doesn’t reflect a difference from white Christian nationalism in the rest of the country. “Maine GOP Vice Chair Channels ‘White Genocide’ Conspiracy Theories,” Jared Holt reports:
Maine Republican Party Vice Chair Nick Isgro warned viewers of a livestream on Facebook that abortion providers were given subsidies “so we can kill our own people” while “global elites” bring immigrants into America “to be used for our own destruction.”
In a Facebook Live video uploaded to the “Restore Maine’s Future” page on Facebook last weekend, Isgro told viewers that the state of Maine was suffering an “absolute crisis.” Isgro said that sanctuary city policies in Portland, Maine, were a threat to the rest of the state.
… Isgro’s comments echo the sentiments “great replacement” conspiracy theories spread in white nationalist circles, which allege that wealthy elites (often used in those circles as a code-phrase for Jews) are bringing immigrants into Europe and North America with the intention of destroying the “homelands” of white people.
Isgro views Maine the same way Viktor Orbán views Hungary — as an aging, shrinking white “homeland” that needs to be preserved against the imagined threat of younger, less-white immigrants. His 14-words-lite response is the same as that of Orbán: portray immigrants as an insidious threat manipulated by (elites) and implement natalist policies intended to bolster the white population.
For Isgro and Orbán and millions of others like them, these two ideas are integrally related. Ladd discussed this in that earlier de-Forbesed essay, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel“:
In a culture where race defined one’s claim to basic humanity, women took on a special religious interest. Christianity’s historic emphasis on sexual purity as a form of ascetic self-denial was transformed into an obsession with women and sex. For Southerners, righteousness had little meaning beyond sex, and sexual mores had far less importance for men than for women. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race. There was no higher moral demand.
This accounts for the double standard of white evangelical purity culture. Boys will be boys, and you can’t blame them for acting like it and trying to sow their wild oats. Boys should still strive to be chaste and pure and to abstain from the dirty, dirty dirtiness of sexual sins, but if they occasionally slip up a bit they don’t turn into “fallen men” in the same way that such a lapse turns women into “fallen women.” Boys who fail to save their pure gift of pure snow-white virginity for marriage aren’t compared to pre-chewed gum or backwashed soda. Because, after all, those boys are spreading and increasing the race, not threatening to dilute it like those wanton hussies.
This is why as much as I’d like to be hopeful about the earnest attempts to address sexual abuse at this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, and to be hopeful about the SBC’s newfound concern for its white supremacist heritage, I think all of those efforts and gestures are doomed to fail. Because they’re motivated, in part, by that same “white angst over lost cultural supremacy.” The SBC is belatedly addressing these huge problems because they’ve come to see them as obstacles to church growth — as obstacles to the cultural and political hegemony that their brand of white evangelicalism once enjoyed and now fears is slipping away from them. And as long as that is the underlying concern — preservation of white/Christian cultural supremacy — the solutions they ultimately embrace are bound to look more like those proposed by people like Viktor Orbán, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump.
Beyond the bald-faced racism and white supremacy of this slogan/ideology, it’s weird that folks like Orbán and Trump and the Christian nationalist/white nationalist Republican Party seem to have convinced themselves that they’re working to “secure … a future for white children” while simultaneously doing everything they can to screw over those children and destroy that future by refusing to address climate change.
Discussing all these folks together — far-right European fascists, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump, the Republican Party of 2019, the 81 percent of white evangelicals who love Trump — will likely cause some to howl in protest that I’m being unfair and using too broad a brush to lump in good, decent Republicans and devout white evangelicals with those far more extreme villains. But scratch the climate-change denialism of those “mainstream” Republicans and evangelicals and you’ll find the extreme and extremely toxic ties that bind. Climate change, they say, is a “hoax” — a Trojan horse scheme for international socialism being foisted and funded by “global elites” like George Soros, etc., etc. That’s where they go, voluntarily, fast and hard, straight to Protocols-of-the-Elders type nonsense. So don’t act like I’m the one lumping them together with the groups they’ve chosen to align themselves with and the groups they’re accepting support from.
Ultimately, they’re scared of climate change because it requires and demands change. Like the Civil Rights movement, and feminism, and #MeToo, and immigration, and critiques of purity culture, it prompts a response of “white angst over loss of cultural supremacy.”
Which brings us to the last of the recent items I want to highlight today, a long, meaty Religion & Politics interview with Darren Dochuk, “Oil Patch Religion: How a Passion for Crude Shaped American Faith” about his new book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America.
There’s a lot here. “Christianity and crude oil each enjoy sprawling influence in American society, and perhaps that is why they have not yet been written about together,” Dochuk says. “I wanted to see what I could learn about modern America by considering them simultaneously.”
This approach shines through in the interview. Dochuk isn’t someone who starts with a Grand Theory and then sets out to confirm it through research. He sets out to “see what I could learn” and the theories — and questions — arise from that:
I found it fascinating how oil’s discovery during the Civil War seemed to guarantee both its mythological sanctity as a healing balm for a broken society and as a catalyst for its political, economic, and religious ambitions on a global stage. In the years that followed, missionaries and oilmen, statesmen and engineers, churches, and petroleum companies naturalized America’s imperial project as God-ordained, and—fueled by petro-dollars and a passion to win souls and discover more oil-rich soil—together helped make the twentieth century the “American Century.” The allegorical power of petroleum was pretty potent, in other words, and helped provide a narrative of American exceptionalism that would last until the energy crisis of the 1970s.
The “energy crisis of the 1970s” challenged the assumptions of American exceptionalism as “God-ordained.” It threatened the foundations of the same white nationalist/Christian nationalist assumptions that were at the same time seeming besieged by the Civil Rights movement and feminism. Here again we trip across the connecting thread: “white angst over loss of cultural supremacy.”
This seems like an important piece of the puzzle being assembled by historians of the religious right — folks like Chris Ladd and Randall Balmer (and, less directly, Rick Perlstein). I’m going to need to think on this and chew it over for a bit. And I think I’m going to need to read Dochuk’s book. (Adds it to the list.)
Part of that thinking and chewing and cogitating involves the way the apparent divine blessing of petro-dollars and petro-prosperity shows the limits of “white angst over loss of cultural supremacy” as a wholly satisfying connecting thread for all of this. The deeper anxiety, I think, isn’t merely that “we” (white Christians) enjoyed control and supremacy and now that control and supremacy are threatened. The deeper anxiety isn’t just about status but about identity — about self-concept. The problem isn’t just that the control/supremacy “we” once enjoyed is slipping away, but that we had always been able to convince ourselves that we deserved such control and supremacy because we were the exceptionally virtuous Good Guys.
It’s not just the loss of entitlement, but the loss of our certainty about our moral claim to that entitlement. It’s not just the fear that our “cultural supremacy” is being lost, but the fear of what it means for our identity and self-concept that we’re just barely beginning to suspect that this loss is right and true and just and good and long overdue — even as we continue to double down on trying to prevent it from happening. Something like that, I suspect, is the deeper “angst” now roiling the SBC and the Maine GOP.
Anyway, the title of this post comes from Jerry Reed’s oil-crisis novelty hit, “The Line in Gasoline,” which offers a time-capsule glimpse into 1978 and the very real national anxiety and identity crisis Dochuk describes as accompanying the energy crisis of the ’70s.