Well, fry my biscuits;…things really are different down here. Historians have gone to great lengths to disprove the common misconception that fundamentalism is somehow only a southern thing, or only a rural thing. But there IS something profoundly different about Southern rural fundamentalism.
For those who are just joining us, I’m spending this year traveling to conservative evangelical colleges to research my next book, thanks to funding from the generous Spencer Foundation. Right now, I’m in scenic Lynchburg, Virginia, home of Liberty University. When I rolled into town, I saw something that blew my mind. No, it wasn’t the huge “LU” sign that had taken over a mountainside. I expected that.
Since the mid-1970s, academic historians have thrown out some old myths about American fundamentalism. Led by scholars such as George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, the new generation of histories no longer insist that fundamentalism is an outgrowth of hillbilly religion. Rather, fundamentalism has thrived in America’s biggest cities as well as in its rural hollers.
Consider my itinerary for this research year. To figure out what fundamentalism has meant across the twentieth century, I’ve traveled to schools such as Biola, Wheaton, and Gordon College. I plan to head to The King’s College and the Moody Bible Institute. My travels will take me to Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York City. Those are nobody’s ideas of rural backwaters. And yet they are the intellectual and spiritual headquarters of much of the fundamentalist movement.
Fair enough. But there is something different about things down here in the South, something different outside of bigger cities. Not only did I drive along Jerry Falwell Parkway to get here, but the lobby of my boring corporate hotel held a big surprise. The books for sale included the standard stuff about horses, cats, and jokes for kids, but there were also a lot of prayer, psalm, and Bible books. Even more remarkable, the shelf included relatively radical creationist books such as Ray Comfort’s Scientific Facts in the Bible.
This is the kicker: Sure, fundamentalism can thrive in big cities. It can certainly thrive in the North. But down here in the South, outside of big cities, fundamentalism becomes the usual fare. It becomes the accepted norm, not just one way to be religious. Even a non-religious, totally vanilla environment such as my hotel lobby offers books that prove the scientific veracity of the Bible.
My hunch is that our so-called Bible Belt refers to those parts of our great country in which conservative Protestantism is something people assume they all share. It refers to those places where your new neighbor will ask you when you move in if you’ve found your church yet. It refers to those places where people think the “real” America is much whiter and more born-again Christian than it really is.
That’s my impression, anyway. I was raised in Boston, in a non-religious household. I’m guessing people more intimately familiar with life in the “Bible Belt” will know more about this sort of thing.