Dixie’s Victory

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The 1960s and 1970s saw this formula tempered but essentially left intact as country music—now electrified and rhythmic and spread to the North and West—set out to conquer television. Two of the first and most successful experiments in country television were “The Wilburn Brothers Show,” which helped propel Loretta Lynn to stardom, and “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which in 1967 provided a national stage for a young, blonde country-pop hopeful named Dolly Parton. As always, the music was in flux, but the country style remained so distinct and recognizable that many listeners confused new creations like “Tennessee Stud,” “The Long Black Veil,” and “The Battle of New Orleans” with traditional folk music.

Since the 1970s country stars from Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Kenny Rogers to Garth Brooks and Lyle Lovett have continued to merge old and new aesthetics in a way that appeals to an immense national audience. Like NASCAR , country music triumphed at the moment when the South itself began to modernize demographically and economically, so its ascendance is a mark of both Dixie’s triumph and its metamorphosis.

The south’s cultural conquest has also had powerful religious implications. In his classic 1931 work Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties , Frederick Lewis Alien recalled the famous 1925 Scopes monkey trial as a turning point for American religion. “Theoretically, Fundamentalism had won,” Alien observed, noting that a local court in Dayton, Tennessee, had essentially upheld a state law enjoining public schools from teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Yet really Fundamentalism had lost... and the slow drift away from Fundamentalism certainly continued.” Alien’s book sold more than a million copies and became “the font at which most subsequent writers about the decade initially drank,” according to the historian Roderick Nash. Echoing Alien’s insight on the topic, scholars and journalists like Mark Sullivan, author of the 1935 bestseller Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925 , concluded that the “Scopes trial marked the end of the age of Amen and the beginning of the age of Oh Yeah! ” Alien and Sullivan would have been astonished by what the next 70 years would reveal. The evangelical Christians hadn’t been defeated; they were simply regrouping. From their base in the South they have brought conservative Christianity to the rest of the country.

Over the past several decades, mainline Christian groups- most notably those affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ—have seen their memberships fall off precipitously, while evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist sects have emerged as an almost equal force within America’s splintered Christian community. Today roughly 50 million Americans are affiliated with mainline churches, while 45 million others identify themselves as evangelicals. The battle that began in a small Tennessee courtroom is far from over.

All evangelicals share a commitment to the doctrine of salvation, to personal conversion experiences, to the authority of Scripture, and to missionary work to spread the gospel. Fundamentalism first emerged at the turn of the last century as a particular strain of evangelicalism. It was a reaction to liberalism, particularly in the leading Christian denominations, which were trying to reconcile the Bible with modern science and social activism.

Fundamentalists championed biblical inerrancy and the literal reading of Scripture. They also believed in dispensational premillennialism, a doctrine that prophesied Christ’s imminent return to earth. They were deeply scornful of their liberal counterparts, particularly adherents of the activist Social Gospel movement, who tended to believe in postmillennialism, the idea that Christ’s Second Coming would only follow a 1,000-year era of peace. They also argued incessantly with Pentecostals, another group of conservative evangelicals who shared many of the fundamentalists’ convictions but who also believed that the Holy Spirit could bestow special gifts upon the saved—for instance, glossolalia, the ability to speak in tongues.

Though most nonevangelicals see little distinction among the various conservative factions, a wide gulf persists between Pentecostals and other “charismatic” sects, on one hand, and strict fundamentalists, on the other. This is the source of the lasting animosity between two modern-day leaders of the Christian right—Pat Robertson, who professes to speak in tongues, and Jerry Falwell, who once joked that glossolalia was just a symptom of indigestion.

In the early 1900s conservative theologians in the South pretty much ruled the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian denominations in their region. But in the North there was a real fight, with the leading churches split almost evenly between liberals and fundamentalists. Greatly concerned after World War I by the apparent harbingers of moral and cultural decay— labor strife, loosening sexual mores, modernist art and literature —the conservatives went on the offensive. In 1919 they formed the World Christian Fundamentals Association and, under the direction of leaders like William Bell Riley of Minneapolis and J. Gresham Machen of Princeton, undertook to purge liberals from the Northern churches.