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The Changing Mind Of The South

Commenting on W.J. Cash’s 1941 classic The Mind of the South, and Tracy Thompson’s recent The New Mind of the South, Peter Lawler talks about the role of Evangelicalism in the Southern sensibility, and how that is changing. Excerpt:

Thompson does miss rather rapid growth in the number of members of “orthodox” churches in the South, especially Catholics, Anglicans (or dissident Episcopalians), and even various “national” (for example, Russian) orthodox churches. For me, a key moment in the development of the mind of the South was Walker Percy’s discovery of a kind of American Thomism through a combination of the Stoic criticism of middle-class materialism and the Christian criticism of Stoicism (and partial affirmation of the justice of middle-class life). I’m in a position to see a good number of evangelicals experiencing basically intellectual conversions–based on the truth as they see it. This kind of conversion remains, of course, mostly a fairly elitist phenomenon. Still, it’s possible to see in the South some evidence to support Tocqueville’s prediction that the Protestant, evangelical position is an unstable mixture of emotional individualism and personal authority, and so eventually most Americans will become either Catholics (or orthodox/authoritarian/high-theological in the mode of Catholics) or pantheists (see Ross Douthat’s recent book on how bad most American religion has become).

W. J. Cash is especially good in seeing how the proud aristocratic manners and morals of the South were, in fact, remarkably democratized. Part of the Southern mind is the mixture of Stoicism, Protestantism, and liberty-loving, place-loving patriotism found in country music (from a narrative view, America’s best music). It’s the struggle of such democratic gentlemen—honorable and somewhat violent men who respect property, loves their various homes, and know how to treat women–to have a real future that’s displayed in the TV classic Friday Night Lights and the recent Jeff Nichols film Mud. It’s very true that I’ve slighted the contribution of blacks to the Southern mind. But it’s not that different. President Obama was elevated recently, for example, by having to speak the language of a “Morehouse Man,” who’s so proud nobody can tell him anything, fearlessly devoted to his duty, and educated to assume a position of leadership in service within his particular community. If you want to find a particularly admirable mixture of Southern Stoicism and Christianity, look to the Morehouse Men.

I hadn’t quite thought of it this way, but it’s true: Coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights, portrayed by Kyle Chandler, is the ideal Southern gentleman of our time. The only thing that doesn’t ring true about the Eric Taylor character — and this is true of the whole series — is that religion is all but a ghost in his life and in the lives of the show’s characters. You see them going to church, but the show never makes a serious attempt to explore the complex role faith plays in the lives of the characters. That is simply not how it goes in the life of small Texas towns, or small Southern towns. Even Southerners who aren’t churchgoers think about Jesus.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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