Dixie’s Victory

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The battle came to a head in 1925, when a group of local boosters in Dayton, Tennessee, persuaded a young high school science teacher, John Scopes, to violate the state’s anti-evolution law. They merely wanted to draw attention to their economically depressed crossroads town. Instead, what followed was a sensational trial that pitted the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, a committed civil libertarian and an almost fanatical atheist, against William Jennings Bryan, the famously eloquent former congressman from Nebraska who had thrice failed to attain the Presidency but who remained a hero to the rural, fundamentalist South. The trial’s climax came when Darrow called his adversary to the stand as a biblical expert and Bryan admitted that some Scriptural language might be more allegorical than literal.

Much of the postwar conservative movement’s strength grew out of this new infusion of fundamentalism.

Although the trial was technically a win for the prosecution, Northern liberals declared it a great victory for their cause. Bryan, they said, had unintentionally exposed fundamentalism for the inchoate drivel it was, while Darrow had established the modern North’s supremacy over the backward, hyper-religious South. Fundamentalism receded in the Northern denominations and became essentially a regional phenomenon. But the conservatives were far from licked. In the decades following the trial they chartered missions, publishing houses, and radio stations; they founded 70 Bible institutions nationwide, including Bryan College in Dayton but also Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Riley’s Northwestern Bible Training School in Minneapolis. In the 1940s they began to reappear in public life.

In the West, areas like Orange County, California, which had long been home to pockets of Pentecostal and fundamentalist activity, witnessed an explosion of conservative Christian activity during the massive influx of Southern migrants that began with World War II. In Northern California’s East Bay area, mainline churches formed an umbrella group, the United Ministry, to organize religious worship for tens of thousands of new defense workers, almost a quarter of whom came from Dixie. The United Ministry found its efforts largely ignored; only about 2 percent of migrant families attended the services. Instead, new defense workers set up their own evangelical and fundamentalist churches, many of them in storefronts or private homes. By 1945 area residents could listen to radio sermons by C. L. Hunter of Texas, the “Cowboy Evangelist,” or Bebe Patten of Tennessee, the “Girl Evangelist.”

In the Midwest many Southern transplants also found their new local Baptist churches at once unsatisfyingly staid and yet liberal in the interpretation of the Bible, and so they began establishing their own fundamentalist churches. Although in 1894 the (liberal) Northern Baptist and (fundamentalist) Southern Baptist Conventions had signed the Fortress Monroe agreement, a mutual pledge not to step across the Mason-Dixon line, by the late 1940s the Northern Baptists found themselves on the defensive. So many Dixieland transplants were organizing fundamentalist churches that in 1949 the SBC voted to abrogate Fortress Monroe. In response, the NBC became ABC: The Northern Baptist Convention changed its name to the American Baptist Convention and pledged retaliation. But the momentum was with the South. In the 1950s and 1960s the Southern Baptists were the swiftest-growing denomination in Ohio. By 1971 they had registered 169 churches in Michigan, 230 in Indiana, 380 in Ohio, and 893 in Illinois. In Ohio and Michigan the American Baptists and Southern Baptists enjoyed almost equal numbers.

The rise of evangelical Christianity in the North and West has reinvigorated politics. On the whole, Pentecostals and fundamentalists assume more conservative positions on social issues, like abortion and the separation of church and state, than do mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Scholars have recently suggested that much of the postwar conservative movement’s strength, particularly in California, grew out of this relatively new infusion of fundamentalism. It is precisely this religious migration that accounts for the rise of Rep. Gary Condit, a socially conservative Democrat, born in Oklahoma, the son of a Baptist minister, a transplant to the West Coast, and once a local favorite in his heavily evangelical district.

The importance of the great white migration has not gone unnoticed, though often enough liberal writers like John Eagerton, the Nashville author of The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America, have been quick to castigate Southern migrants for “exporting” the “vices” of their region “without importing values.” Or, as Peter Applebome argued more recently, “at a time when a Democratic president like Bill Clinton is coming out for school prayer, going along with sweeping Republican legislation shredding welfare and taking his cues from a consultant, Dick Morris, who formerly worked for Southern archconservatives like Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, when race is a fractious national obsession … when the Supreme Court is acting as if Jefferson Davis were chief justice … in times such as these, to understand America, you have to understand the South.”

Despite his tone of aggrievement, Applebome’s point is sound: Southern culture today enjoys far more national influence than it has at any time since a Virginian was given command of the Continental Army.