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part 2 Reframing Norms This page intentionally left blank 57 Deconstructing the Bible Belt john hayes The Bible Belt is, arguably, the most widespread and vivid image of the American South. The phrase “Bible Belt” immediately conjures up sharp, dis‑ tinct associations: it’s a place where it’s hard to get a drink and transgressive to dance, where strangers ask you what church you go to, where roadside signs beckon with urgent summons like “Have You Been Redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ?” and “You Can Become a Child of God Today.” In journalism and social commentary, the phrase functions often as shorthand to invoke a place where basic tenets of evolutionary science are rejected, where defense of the patriarchal family is a galvanizing cultural issue, where the politics of mili‑ tant nationalism, corporate deregulation, nativism, and weak environmental regulation hold especial (if not unique) sway. The titles of well-­received works of academic scholarship likewise invoke (and thus substantiate) this popular imagery: Christine Heyrman’s Bancroft Prize–­winning Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997) and Darren Dochuk’s Dunning Prize–­ winning From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-­ Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (2011), among others. Indeed, more broadly, the leading scholarship in southern religious history has fortified such imagery, lending academic credence to popular conception. In the 1960s the pioneering scholar Samuel Hill theorized that evangelical Protestantism so dominated religious life in the region that it constituted a “southern church” and that “substantially the same syndrome of belief, prac‑ tice, and emphasis” that had coalesced around 1800 still defined the South.1 Hill’s work portrayed a coherent region with remarkable religious homogene‑ ity. His model came to so strongly define the field that in the 1990s, scholars who wanted to break new ground had to confront and challenge it. “An overly simple and static use of the concept of evangelicalism hides the diversity of southern religious life,” Paul Harvey argued in a 1997 book.2 Donald Mathews critiqued the “myth of [the South’s] evangelical homogeneity” in a 1998 es‑ say.3 And in a 1998 forum Beth Barton Schweiger argued that “the question 58 hayes remains whether the very term ‘southern religion,’ which imposes a singular unity and purpose and mind, serves at all.”4 But the political dominance of the Republican Party during the years after the 2000 elections brought the coherent, homogenous model back. In a 2005 collection, Charles Reagan Wilson wrote of the “long cultural hegemony of evangelical Protestants,” of how Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were so all-­encompassing that they effectively constituted “the Southern Church.”5 The new element was not the region or the religion itself, but rather regional religion’s political mobilization. Wilson argued that George W. Bush stood as the “avatar” of this new mobilization “in the white evangelical belt.”6 In the same collection, Samuel Hill reaffirmed his original model, although now ex‑ tending its chronology into the early 2000s: “for close to two centuries, a re‑ gional version of evangelical Protestantism prevailed as the pacesetter for the religious life of the people.”7 In the concluding pages of a sweeping 2005 narra‑ tive of religious change over two centuries, Paul Harvey argued that “white southern evangelicals still live in the ‘solid South,’ but one that is solidly con‑ servative Republican.”8 The qualification of “white” showed a recognition that “the South” could not accurately be shorthand for “white people,” that the re‑ ligious life of southern African Americans had informed different political and cultural expressions, but still the image of the Bible Belt remained: a coherent region, defined by a homogenous religion, with very definite political/​cultural implications. A 2004 political meme coined a new phrase but expressed the same basic sense. As the twenty-­ first century dawned, the South was a red state “Jesusland,” the Bible Belt all over again. The Bible Belt is a historical artifact, a concept whose origins are revealing of both its currency and its limitations. The phrase first appeared in the pages of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury in October 1924.9 In its first appearance (not unlike the “Jesusland” meme if one looks closely) Mencken applied the phrase to a wide swath of the United States, encompassing South and Mid‑ west. But on the heels of his coverage of the trial of high school teacher John T. Scopes the following year in Dayton, Tennessee, for violating the state’s new...


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