The Mind of the South

     Thoughts on The Mind of the South, by W. J. Cash

W. J. Cash follows Mencken–and genuine Southern Stoics such as the poet William Alexander Percy–in having a very poor opinion of the uneducated individualism and raw emotion of Southern religion. It is, as Will Percy said, for “white trash” and for “Negroes” incapable of ruling themselves. The disconnection of religion from any sense of social responsibility was the just criticism of the neo-Puritanical liberal Protestants of Southern fundamentalism. And the last Puritanical invasion of the South might be considered the Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, having been educated in a liberal understanding of the connection between Christianity and social justice. Cash, of course, doesn’t try to do justice to Southern black Christianity, and the place of churches and preachers in leading local communities. The “Negro spiritual” always had the double meaning of longing for both spiritual and political salvation.

Puritanical faith, of course, lost that double meaning over the years, and religion became associated with solely a sophisticated devotion to social justice. Lost was the “otherworldly” understanding of Christianity as being about the drama of salvation of particular souls. Liberal Protestantism became nothing more than a branch of progressivism–and a particularly condescending and imprudent one. The exaggerated individualism and deep emotionalism of Southern religion has the advantage of focusing on the singular destiny of each of us. It is about personal–not political–salvation.

The focus on a salvation that depends on faith and not works is a kind of self-obsession, one particularly repulsive to thoughtful and meritocratic Stoics. But it’s one that’s kept the focus on the particular connection between the personal creature and the personal Savior, and so it is an antidote to the kind of self-obsession that comes with believing that one’s fate is solely in one’s hands. It is also an antidote to materialistic self-obsession, of course, in emphasizing that the key personal quality is personal love–or the virtue of charity. It is also, for that matter, an antidote to the Green obsession about “being” itself resting in our responsible hands.

Unlike the proudly particularistic Stoic, of course, the Southern Christian believes that we’re all uniquely and irreplaceably equal under God. And (see Robert Duvall’s The Apostle) that belief is most fully lived out in the lowest of Southern churches–the Holiness church and the Assembly of God. One answer to the Puritanical–or progressive–criticism of the South for being weak on public welfare is that it compensates personally by being strong on private charity. Southerners are often astoundingly indifferent to the quality of their public schools, but they lavish loving attention on “Sunday school” and increasingly on (Christ-centered) schooling at home.

So the Southern, “Christ-haunted” mind is singularly alive to the literal personal truth of Christianity. It is home to the religion that Tocqueville hoped would be the foundation to our common morality and a brake on egalitarian hopes for what can be accomplished through social reform. Thompson and Cash both assume that the progress of business and urban sophistication in the South will eventually mean the withering away of fundamental or evangelical belief. They’re both biased by the certainty that no enlightened person could believe Christianity is literally true. Tracy Thompson, in The New Mind of the South, predicts that the “old fusion of evangelical religion and Southern culture” has about run its course, which is not a prediction that does justice to the way displaced persons finds homes in suburban, untraditional, and aesthetically-challenged megachurches. Still, she is right to add that one of the pathologies of increasingly precarious existence of the lower middle-class in the rural South is the disconnection of persons and broken families from “church homes.” And she is right to question the effects of media-driven sophistication on the future of evangelical belief in general.

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.

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