Before I start this piece, let me state that not all people in Kentucky are like this. There are those of us who love the land we were born in, and many if not most of the people. It is a beautiful countryside and we recommend visiting – just not during the Kentucky Derby. We complain because we see it as a place worth saving, but as with all geographic locations inhabited by man there is always a regressive element. (See: Brexit, Marine LePen, Manchester United fandom etc.) Ours simply happens to be quite unique.
A big part of what makes Kentucky regressives unique is the conservative insistence on JAAAAYZUS! I don’t have any qualms with the actual teachings of Christ, but like Gandhi I find myself often repulsed by his followers. Whether or not you believe in Jesus, one can agree that his message was relatively simple. Do good unto others. Heal the sick. Feed the poor. If a man asks you to walk a mile with him, walk two. Not terribly hard to follow, and probably responsible for the quick spread of what was once considered a cult by the Jewish culture that spawned it. Of course, modern “Christians” and their politics are nothing like the teachings of Christ.
To the utter confusion of outside groups, Southern Evangelicals have hitched their cart to a President that ultimately seems something of an anti-Christ. With his multiple marriages, braggadocious lifestyle, sharp temper, and unwillingness to turn the other cheek, Pussygrabber-In-Chief Donald Trump has taken the South by storm. In an era where populism is a rising force, the billionaire sold himself as the symbol of a self-made man and taking a much angrier, aggressive stance that blue-collar voters could identify with. The working class legitimately have much to be angry about, after all.
Myself, I had a father that made sure that I was in a church pew whether he was or not. It was in a Pentecostal church that I honed my reading skills, my undiagnosed autism downloading the Early Modern English of the King James Bible into my mind with a laserlike focus by age 8. I was using a Greek/Hebrew key study Bible, so I delved into that world a little bit as well. At age 12, I preached my first mini-sermon. My religion was my all, until enough science classes finally opened up a nagging doubt which led to my complete rejection of all spiritual concepts at age 16. Or maybe it was just the talking snake, talking donkey, talking pillar of fire, and so on. Before that moment, I spent a lot of my time telling my schoolmates that they would burn in eternal fire if they did not renounce their worldly, sinful ways. You can imagine how popular I was.
With the loss of the religion that provided a top-down structure for my thinking, I found my mind turning much more towards a leftist, science-driven stance in life. This is what put me at such odds with so many of my fellow Kentuckians.
Although we have churches in Louisville, we have all stripes. You can find Catholics, a Jewish temple, a mosque or two, gay-accepting Methodists, and several other denominational or non-denominational sects. Although my atheism was once as militant as my Pentecostalism, I have accepted the fact that human belief in deities is not something that will go away in my lifetime and made friends who accept me as I accept them. Like most other major cities situated in otherwise rural states, our intellectual core provides our diversity.
However, one need not even leave city limits to start running into churches deemed “Evangelical.” A simple definition of the term could be churches that believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but there is much more to it than that. Believing that they are working to bring about the will of Christ, Evangelicals tirelessly rail on about the encroachment of secular society on their “Christian nation.” To them, it is a given that the “freedom” of the United States is a sign that we are to lead the world, one-by-one, to our version of democracy… if you can really call it that anymore. My jaundiced eye tells me no, but I have a hope that one day my people will cast off the shackles of the thinking that was dictated to them, a thought process with no thought.
Last time I wrote, I mentioned it a “perverse irony” that Southern Christians would vote for politicians that would let people without healthcare die, quit feeding the children of the poor, and other things that Jesus supposedly told us to do. The mental gymnastics required to hold such beliefs are not inconsiderable. It all seems to boil down to a special type of brainwashing and a milieu that leaves a population susceptible to conspiracy theories about “outsiders.”
The insular nature of rural people towards outsiders is not unique to the US. What is so unique about it, is the way that Southerners have been played since Richard Nixon implemented his Southern Strategy in 1968. This was 4 years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Right Act – and the vote on the Act was split on a North-South, rather than Republican-Democrat divide. Regardless, the Nixon team sought to blame Democrats for the Act.
As one can tell from electoral maps of the US today, it worked. With small variation, the South that once embraced the New Deal as a means of bringing them into modern times turned towards promises of “small government.” In place of worker’s rights, the new Republicans talked of “states’ rights,” which is a thinly-veiled reference to the forced integration of the ‘50s and ‘60s by the federal government. To this day, you can find Confederate apologists who insist that the Civil War was not about slavery, but states’ rights. States’ rights to do what?
The religious, anti-intellectual element goes hand-in-hand with the racist element, of course. You will hear screeds about how evolution is a lie, but that people of color are sub-human or some other inferior form of life. You will hear that academia is biased, and that climate change is not the fault of fossil fuels or manmade action. Maybe it’s just those mean, mean scientists in a liberal conspiracy to pick on the poor oil companies, who never hurt anyone and only wanted to help people live modern life. The right claims to be “small government,” yet has no problem broadening civil asset forfeiture (even when the accused is never charged with a crime) or denying a woman agency of her own body.
The pro-life contingent of the party is probably the most confusing to me. By all means, they are pro-life… until the fetus leaves the womb. The healthcare that Europeans take for granted is often not accessible to this child. Free and reduced lunches at public schools – sometimes the only meals that child will eat that day – are on the chopping block. Funding for programs and education that will help that child educate itself and leave the multigenerational cycle of poverty is dwindling. This comes in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.
The other half of the alleged “pro-life” side that confuses me is that so many of them are actively advocating for the making of war. The only major revolution to never eat it’s own children, the US was baptized in the blood of belligerents and worships combat. In the Civil War, we razed the South to the ground. My third-great grandfather was part of that horde that marched with Sherman to the sea, setting fire to Atlanta and so many other smaller cities along the way. World War I and II saw us as victors, and we emerged as the West’s definitive superpower. In discretionary budgeting (above the mandatory budget) we spend over 50% on our military.
As such, the same people who do not trust the government to administer healthcare, restrict the sales of firearms to competent parties, or enforce banking regulations DO trust the selfsame government to choose who dies in the latest engagement, which is always in the Muslim world for some strange, inexplicable reason.
Perhaps I would not be as perplexed if these people actually followed the Bible thoroughly in their daily lives. The most religious states also have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy. Modern country music has songs about partying all night Saturday and then atoning for it on Sunday morning. If you can stand it, listen to Kenny Chesney’s “Everybody Wants Go To Heaven,” as it relates the casual-Christian mentality very well, with the singer offering more money to the collection plate in order to buy his way out of sin. The debauchery described is in stark contrast to the Bible’s admonishment that “fornicators… drunkards… shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In my own state, we made national headlines for a county clerk that would not issue a marriage license to a gay couple, even though she was on her Biblically-forbidden fourth marriage. For those in question, the only acceptable reason for divorce in the New Testament is adultery. All others are not to remarry. Even my own former stepbrother, still in the Pentecostal church, was dating before his divorce was final… but for me to have sex before marriage is to court hellfire. My uncle Tommy (married in) always insisted in leading us in prayer before Christmas dinner, but saw a family argument as a reason to steal things left to me by my deceased parents. He was also a domestic abuser, whose illegal gun I once hid from him when he and my aunt were having a fight. But HE has pled the blood of Jesus, so that’s okay.
Most of all, and the most striking indictment of the modern Evangelical movement, are the unbelievable waves of judgment that emanate off of so many believers. To them, the fact that I do not base my life off of a book that starts off with a talking snake and moves on to a talking donkey is anathema to their existence. Whether in small rural churches or the giant, sprawling congregations of such snake oil salesmen as Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen, there is a direct and accusatory tone taken towards the nonbeliever. People in the South who protest the mixing of religion and the statehouse are sent death threats – which if carried out would violate one of the Ten Commandments. The poor are looked at by “prosperity theologians” as those who have not reached the favor of God, even though you find the most churches per capita in impoverished, poorly-educated areas.
It’s all very confusing, but it can roughly be explained in one word: tribalism.
Rural American culture is an offshoot of the pioneer culture, which did not set off into hostile Native lands because it sounded like fun. These were the latecomers to the colonial game, shut out of the mercantile and landowning interests of the coast. Shunned, they traveled westward to seek a place of their own and retained deep in their cultural mentality is a very US VS. THEM paradigm. Add a couple hundred years of exploitation by coal companies, the carpetbaggers of the Reconstruction era, the federal vs. state power struggle, etc. and you get a situation where people who talk different, look different, or think different are often automatically regarded with suspicion if not outright contempt.
For poor people with a lack of education and limited prospects in life (either to circumstance or the limits of their own vision) religion can be a powerful drug that, although often limiting in worldview, helps them to put aside the anxieties that they do not understand and the ability to slough off life’s tragedies as simply being the will of God, a trial they must endure like Job. The political use of religion as a propaganda tool came much later.
In 1973, the landmark Roe v. Wade case came before the United States Supreme Court, and they held that a woman has a right to abortion. With the culture wars already in place versus the New Left, the racial strife of a black population yearning to throw the yoke of oppression, technological change such as the nuclear bomb, conservative politicians found a way to play to the fears of those left behind culturally. Endtime prophecies abounded, and more and more the Republicans began to build their own “Christian” cultural machines, such as Oral Roberts University and the Christian homeschooling movement. More and more the lines between politics and religion blurred, with some fleecing the rubes and others fully convinced that they were on a mission from God himself. Ideology became paramount, as conservativism could never fail… it could only be failed.
The other evening I was driving through a country area that I had grown up in, on my way back from seeing an old friend. Sunroof back, the stars lit up in a way they never do in the city. I breathed in the warm Kentucky air which smelled brightly of life and the flora that was awakening throughout the Ohio Valley. My radio came to a channel, 106.3 on the dial. I heard a man impassionedly singing about “this once-great nation” and how we had to “build the wall, let’s build it for America” and the moment was ruined. I let the song play out at a lower volume, unsure whether I’d found a new right-wing propaganda station or somebody’s sick idea of a joke. The next song was an old-time gospel classic and I was reminded of the famous quote by Sinclair Lewis, “When fascism comes to the United States, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Truer words have never been spoken.
Illustration Nick Victor