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.