Jesus Yes, Honey Boo Boo No

Southern Cross, Bible Belt, Hillbilly Heaven…you’ve heard the stereotypes of the American Deep South.

Thanks to the National Center for Science Education’s blog, we see some confirmation of the old chestnuts in a recent poll from Georgia.  On a second look, however, we also see some surprises.

A poll of 520 Georgia voters from the Public Policy Polling group finds strong support for creationism.  As the NCSE notes, 53% of respondents said they believed more in creationism than in evolution.  Among the (self-identified) “very conservative,” the number skyrocketed to 77%.

That is strong support for creationism.

For some folks, this might serve as just more proof that there’s nothing really “new” about the “New South.”  Folks in Georgia love their Bibles.

For us here at ILYBYGTH, two things jump out.

First, it demonstrates the stubbornness of region as a category for understanding culture and religion.  Since even before the Civil War, the Deep South has been accused of retrograde politics, reactionary culture.  When “fundamentalism” reared its head as an influential movement in the 1920s, both opponents and supporters used ideas about “Southernness” to either bolster or discredit it, as I argue in my 1920s book.

Other historians, too, have skewered the overly simple notion that conservative Christianity is somehow simply a Southern thing.  George Marsden and William V. Trollinger, for example, demonstrated the power of early fundamentalism in places such as Chicago and Minneapolis.

Nevertheless, as this poll suggests, there is yet stronger creationist support in a state like Georgia than there might be elsewhere.  No matter what the nerds might say about the complexity of religion, region still plays a hugely influential role in conservative Christianity.

Also, beyond the question of creation and evolution, this poll shows some surprising cultural changes among the Georgians polled.  First off, support for creationism did not vary much between white and black respondents, 54% of whites preferred it, 52% of African Americans.

Second, some Georgia notions that once seemed eternal now seem less so.  For instance, from the nineteenth century, only 28% of respondents said they had an “unfavorable” idea of William Tecumseh Sherman.  Even only among white respondents, only 34% reported an unfavorable opinion of the General credited with the rape, burning, and looting of Georgia.  Apparently, this sea change in Georgians’ public memories mostly represents ignorance.  A significant majority of respondents did not seem to know who Sherman was.

But more recent history also finds some surprises for those who cherish old stereotypes of the Deep South.  An overwhelming majority (73%) reported a favorable opinion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including 65% of white respondents and 67% of the “very conservative.”

Another possible surprise for those of us outside the South: No one likes Honey Boo Boo.  Well, not exactly no one, but only 8% of respondents reported a favorable opinion of her.  The cartoonish reality show, filmed in rural Georgia, likely angers people who actually live there.

What do we know about Georgians?  They like creationism.  In large numbers.

Significantly, especially for those science pundits who like to frame the creation/evolution debate as a matter of scientific knowledge vs. bullheaded religious ignorance, this poll suggests that support for creationism is firmly grounded in a complex conservative cultural identity.

Among those who called themselves “very conservative,” over three quarters preferred creationism.  Among the “very liberal,” just over one third did.  The poll results show a strong correlation between ideology and preference for creationism.  The more conservative one is, the more likely one is to prefer creationism.

Assuming that those creationist beliefs are somehow simply a product of isolation or ignorance ignores the important truth that creationism is part of a coherent and powerful way of understanding the world.



Do Georgians Hate Gay Kids?

About a week ago, an article in the New York Times drew attention to a report about anti-gay discrimination in tax-funded private schools in Georgia.  Though liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have publicized the findings, responses from conservative America seem more muted.  I wonder if this lack of indignant defenses from conservatives results from the implicit connection between this issue and racial discrimination.

The report from the Southern Education Foundation warned that of the 400+ Georgia private schools that receive tax-funded scholarship money, 115 schools discriminate openly and explicitly against homosexuality.

The report included policy statements from several such schools.  For instance, according to the report, the parent/student handbook at Shiloh Hill Christian School in Kennesaw warned that any student who said, “I am gay,” “I am a homosexual,” or a male saying, “I like boys,” could be expelled.  Another school statement quoted in the report warned,

“In accordance with the Statement of Faith and in recognition of Biblical principles, no ‘immoral act’ or ‘identifying statements’ concerning fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, or pornography, will be tolerated.  Such behavior will constitute grounds for expulsion. . .”

These schools all receive funding from student scholarship organizations (SSOs).  SSOs, active in eleven states, according to the New York Times, allow taxpayers to divert taxes dollar-for-dollar to these scholarship organization.  Instead of paying their money in taxes, in other words, taxpayers can pay for students to attend private schools.

How have conservatives defended the program?  Fairly quietly, it seems to me.  Perhaps my antennae are simply not sensitive enough, but I have not read many endorsements of the Georgia program.  This is surprising, since other school-funding options such as charter schools and school vouchers usually draw vociferous defenses from conservatives.

There have been some arguments in defense of Georgia’s policies.

In a post on First Things’ First Thoughts blog, for example, Joseph Knippenberg made a religious-liberty defense of the Georgia program.  First, Knippenberg argued, taxpayers ought to have control over their tax dollars, to some extent.  Until their money enters the public treasury, it is still private, Knippenberg pointed out.  Therefore, choosing to donate to certain schools must be considered in the same category as choosing to donate to certain churches, or hospitals, or advocacy organizations.

Second, Knippenberg extended this argument to people’s right to practice their religions freely.  “To deny people the opportunity to make a contribution to the faith of their choice,” Knippenberg wrote, “is to deny their religious freedom.”

It seems there are other arguments conservatives could make.  As one commenter on a Christianity Today blurb noted,

“Sexual preference or orientation is not a person. It is not unjust discrimination to discriminate between acts, including sexual acts that respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus acts of authentic Love, and acts, including sexual acts, that do not respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus demeaning.”

These comments from “Kathleen” articulate a deeper possible defense of Georgia’s policies.  Though I personally agree that Georgia’s tax money ought not fund schools that discriminate against homosexual students, let me try to spell out this possible argument a little bit.

Here goes:

The argument against Georgia’s tax-funding scheme implicitly uses the history of racial school discrimination to discredit the current policy of religious school discrimination.  It fudges the difference.  This implied analogy does not hold water.

All schools, all people, all organizations discriminate.  Any school that admits some people and does not admit others discriminates.  In some cases, private schools discriminate openly against people who can’t or won’t pay their tuition.  And this sort of discrimination raises no objections.

The issue, then, is which sorts of discrimination are legitimate.  On the whole, Americans agree that discrimination by race is not legitimate.  Of course, there are plenty of white- and black-supremacist holdouts.  In general, however, in terms of constitutional law and explicit policy practice, America has abjured its white-supremacist past of schools segregated legally by race.

To imply that all school discrimination belongs in the same moral, legal, and Constitutional category as racial discrimination unfairly smears religious dissenters as bigots.

Again, just to ward off misunderstanding, let me be clear: I’m playing devil’s advocate here.  In this case, I personally believe that public money should not fund private schools that discriminate against homosexuality.

But intelligent scholars have pointed out the flaw in the “bigotry” analogy.

In an essay on Public Discourse a few months back, Princeton’s Robert George assailed the tendency to label all forms of discrimination “bigotry.”  Speaking in regard to the definition of marriage, George argued,

“Thus, advocates of redefinition [of marriage] are increasingly open in saying that they do not see these disputes about sex and marriage as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of reason, enlightenment, and equality—those who would ‘expand the circle of inclusion’—on one side, and those of ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination—those who would exclude people out of ‘animus’—on the other. The ‘excluders’ are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists. Of course, we (in the United States, at least) don’t put racists in jail for expressing their opinions—we respect the First Amendment; but we don’t hesitate to stigmatize them and impose various forms of social and even civil disability upon them and their institutions. In the name of ‘marriage equality’ and ‘non-discrimination,’ liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.”

Similarly, Peter Berger noted the increasing tendency of homosexual-rights advocates to frame their arguments as matters of rights.  As Berger wrote in The American Interest,

“At the time [the 1950s] homosexual rights were advocated by a discourse of individual freedom, basically freedom to choose one’s values and way of life. In other words, the discourse was in terms of the first amendment to the US constitution. The discourse now is very different: Homosexuality is not a choice, but a destiny—an individual does not, cannot choose to be gay—one is born gay—and society should acknowledge and respect this congenital fate. I think it is very clear why this change in discourse occurred: If homosexuality is destined not chosen, it is analogous to race—and thus the movement for homosexual rights can wrap itself in the mantle of the Civil Rights movement. Let me reiterate: I have identified all along with the insistence on the rights of homosexuals, and I think I understand the rhetorical logic of the changed discourse. Is it based on good scientific evidence? I don’t know.”

In other words, if conservatives hope to maintain schools—even private schools, even religious schools—that discriminate against homosexual students, it will be imperative for conservatives to reframe this issue.  If Americans see Georgia’s funding of anti-homosexual schools as a fair analogy to public funding of anti-African American schools, the writing is on the wall.  Such racial discrimination no longer musters any public support.

Arguing that this is an issue of religious freedom will not be enough.  Conservatives must do more than just argue that discrimination against certain lifestyle choices is a legitimate part of their religious freedom and expression.  After all, religious freedom has been abridged in the quest for racially desegregated schools.  Conservatives, it seems to me, must do what Professor George advocates: break the intellectual connection between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on other bases.  Only if discrimination against homosexuals is seen as a legitimate option—even by those who do not agree—will religious institutions manage to maintain such policies.