A Southerner Reflects on Our Current Political Moment (Part II)

Politics, Religion, 2016 Election and Inherit the Wind

The plan for this commentary is to explore the role of the many forms of southern culture in the 2016 election process. More specifically, we will dive into the complex relationship between evangelical Protestantism, political conservatism and the miscalculation by political pundits and pollsters of the Trump phenomenon. This phenomenon however is no longer confined to the south but applies to a broader swath of social strata. The experts seemed unable to approach this election in terms of a merger between many elements. We will shift explanations for this underestimation of Trump-ism from words to images, taking the perspective of “one picture is worth 10,000 words”. We turn to Stanley Kramer’s 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. Kramer dramatizes the infamous Scopes Monkey trial in the mid 1920’s in Dayton Tennessee. Ironically this trial occurred within a few years of Raymond Dart’s announced his discovery of Australopithecus africanus (South African ape-man). Both the trial and the discovery of this supposed “missing link” between man and the apes opened a Pandora’s box of cognitive dissonances.

As in most movies (this was a play also) the screen writers and directors take liberties with the historical facts. But the movie does a frightening job of bringing into focus the siege mentality, zealotry, emotionalism, anti-intellectualism, and demands for orthodoxy and conformity in this small Tennessee community. In addition, the movie dramatizes the generational, educational, and regional differences in attitudes towards change. The emphasis on my corner of the world reminds me of a post-Copernican priests who argued “I am more interested in working to get souls to heaven than how the heaven’s work”. The play and movie make stunning use of the fundamentalist mantra of “gimme that old time religion” to get me to heaven. This hymn stands in stark contrast to emerging science and evolutionary biology. The trial scenes emphasize an underlying concern at the time regarding the dissemination of this “modern science” in the fertile young minds in the brave new world of American high schools. This concern persists today as many religious conservatives decry to exclusion of Creation Science and the unfettered teaching of evolution by natural selection to counterbalance evolutionary “theories”. This mind set of faith versus scientific evidence resurfaces from time to time in many disguises. Pundits did not explore the role played by these beliefs, themes, values and conflicts played in the 2016 election. We will try to in a later article.

Stanley Kramer’s 1960 movie version centers on the conflicts between Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond or Clarence Darrow); Frederick March (Matthew Harrison Brady or William Jennings Bryan) and Gene Kelly (E K Hornbeck or H L Mencken) and a very powerful supporting cast. In a sense it is allegorical. Many younger readers may be not remember, or have read about the events of early 1960’s when the USSR seemed to be ahead in the space race and science teaching in the US looked second rate. Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin (first man in space) were stark reminders. Historical events pitted the anti-science believers (anything attached to evolution by natural selection) with new information about cosmology, evolutionary biology, and other basic sciences. Some consider the rise of a new wave of fundamentalism as a rear guard defense against liberal Biblical modes of criticism. The “old time religion” was far more comforting that this stuff. The rise of terms “godless scientist” and “atheism” seemed intertwined with the challenges to federal effects at desegregation. Culture change and this amalgam of “left behind” working folk may partly explain the emerging shift from democratic to republican hegemony. These changes also helped propel the solidification of the connection between religious Fundamentalism and political conservatism. A similar argument went something like this “we need better scientific education, but not Darwin’s “theory” of natural selection- there is no god in his world”.

Several themes grow out of this movie:

  1. The exaggerated conflict between science (Evolutionary Biology) and Biblical literalism grew out of a sense of disbelief in the meaning and validity of scientific methods and findings when contrasted with emotional beliefs, theology and social values. Unfortunately these ideas merged with hardening support for segregation; elimination of prayer in public school, legalized abortion, growing welfare state, attitudes towards communisms, function of a college education, and many of the programs established by FDR and Lyndon Johnson. The justification for these challenges depended in part on a very distorted picture of the historical interactions between science and religion.
  2. As the complexity of scientific data exploded, the scientific IQ of many people lagged well behind. Many scientists seemed unable to communicate the meaning of their increasingly specialized and often anti-intuitive scientific data. Science was perceived as a destructive force when it perceived in the eyes of many religious folks. In the public eye (populists especially) there was a tendency to devalue pure or basic research at the expense of goal-directed science (and education) with practical or instrumental applications. The impracticality of those in the ivory tower was inferior to personal experience and common sense. They “don’t know anything about how my world works or what is really useful.”
  3. The Butler Act prohibited the teaching of evolution in any public high school in Tennessee. Scopes (Bertram Gates in the movie) openly defied the law and taught an oversimplified version of evolution in a classroom setting. He was charged with violating that Tennessee law. His defense (Spencer Tracy) presented legal arguments based on freedom of thought and belief- a challenge to religious and social orthodoxy. Consistent with a literal interpretation of the Butler Act, the judge (a young Harry Morgan) prohibited the testimony of noted experts and scientists of the day. The prosecution was dominated by Brady (William Jennings Bryan) hinged its case on the narrow issue of breaking the law. The defense countered by questioning the validity of Biblical accounts of the creation of man and miracles that were foundational to the religious fundamentalism. The defense seduced Brady into taking the stand as an expert on the Bible. In a piece of courtroom skill Drummond (Tracy or Clarence Darrow) proceeded to destroy him based on inconsistencies. Brady’s arguments collapsed but the jury ruled against Scopes. But the story is more complex. This trial was a test case for ACLU. They pushed for an appeal and the eventual negation of the Butler act.
  4. Hornbeck (aka Kelley or HL Mencken) plastered his newspaper columns with his depiction of the deplorables in Tennessee as closed minded, backward rubes – the primitivism, anti-intellectualism and fanatical fundamentalism to many of his northern readers. Embedded in both of these events are the hints of a distrust and disgust with lawyers, judges, the press and liberals so prominent in the 2016 election.
  5. The movie depicts the use of religious zeal as an instrument of conformity and a place of asylum from the uncertainty generated by a rapidly changing, conservative society. The greatness of the play/movie lies in the depiction of the human diversity (actually not everyone was vehemently anti-science or evolution). There was compassion and a search for understanding on all sides but the drama was dominated by the brutality and inhumanity of extremism. The goals were not debate but destruction of the other. In the end, it was Tracy and Kelly that clashed over moral and ethical principles of justice versus legal victory. Both Drummond and Hornbeck argued against the stifling effect of rigid conformity in Southern society. This mindset also included a discomfort with “new learning”, a zealous religious fundamentalism and “localism” were over exaggerated for the sake of dramatic effect. Localism referred to a view of our town, our folks, and our experiences are superior to and closer to fundamental Truths in sharp contrast with the scientific truths presented by the experts. The inherent superiority of our folks (even “our blacks”) over those in the next town. These attitudes created a fertile ground for many of the cognitive dissonances that dominated the 1960’s.

In a stark but at times melodramatic fashion, Kramer and his cast captured the complexity of the times. The same argument can be raised during any discussion of southern religion, its relationship to politics and social change. It is a bit foolish to even think that I covered the tip of the iceberg regarding these psychosocial forces. So let me paraphrase a few quotes for your review:

“Swaggering, unyielding characteristics, and unruly congregations, fighting when they deemed fighting appropriate. A premium is placed on a straight-ahead speaking style that emphasizes a thunderous voice that can drown out hecklers, simply experience-tinged ideas with no rational explanations offered as evidence. The events evoked wild emotional responses, recklessness, with a hint of dangerousness and uncivilized- violence”.

Is this a summary of the speaking style of the last presidential campaign? Does it sound familiar from a man that seems disinterested in the complexity of events and the rich learning of experts? Close but no cigar. The collage paraphrases a non-theologically trained, frequently uneducated, travelling revival speakers in the southern frontier of the early 19th century (David T Bailey. Frontier Religion. In Hill SS (Ed) Religion from The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture). This is a revival speaker before a potentially rowdy, violent and clearly emotionally expressive faithful. Compare these observations to the crowds at Trump Campaign. He played a role that resonated with his crowds: his stump speech captured the structure and function of a revival. This congruence between the President’s campaign style and a well-established evangelical world of history was largely overlooked or forgotten by pundits.

Watching his “rallies” awakened old experiences with revivals from my childhood. A good preacher has to tap into the energy and zeal of a sectarian camp meeting designed to preach to the faithful and attract new converts. Part of Trump’s talent lies in his ability to resonate with this camp meeting fervor. He is a master at categorizing others as hell-bound sinners (liberals and progressives) are not worthy of salvation or membership in our brotherhood/sisterhood. In one swoop the deplorables are now accepted and belong to God’s chosen. Even though they are suffering economic and spiritual hardships, they will be redeemed in his “Better America”. Trump himself is a “Convert”. He has given his testimony and made his testimony and is now “saved”.

All of the participants in his rallies struggled with their sins. The rally like a camp meeting “converted and saved” his audience. His foibles were considered in a similar vein- he said he was sorry and this testimony purified his heart and erased obvious biographical “facts” and other sources of cognitive dissonances. His trials and tribulations and suffering were brought on by the press, US Congress and those damnable liberals. He is redeemed, new baptized and now is “one of us”. Even if he backslides, he will be forgiven through god’s grace. But probably not the voter’s grace. Remember this a metaphor and those who unconsciously seize the mantel political religion have to answer for their failure in this world.

This analogy of his campaign rallies as “tent meetings” (religious revivals) also function as a conversion experience. Conversion takes a candidate with many flaws (all of us are sinners) who is “born-again” and acceptable to his believers. Regardless of lying, cheating, abusing or any other sins of his past he is “saved” by virtue of this conversion experience.

Although this article is speculative and woefully over simplified it may offer possible clues to the functional similarities between this campaign and a revival meeting. These are largely unconscious processes but they manipulate expectations of the crowds and loyalists. These observations are not limited to the southern political/religious universe. These observations may provide meager insights into why voters seem to be capable of suspending disbelief and develop a sense of unity with this president. To belong in Trump-land does not emphasize intellectual synchrony, and cognitive dissonance is swept away by faith and devotion. A political-religious experience meets much deeper psychological needs. Calling these folks “deplorables” unites them and matches their sectarian world view. Clinton provided an apology but it was not perceived in term of a conversion or testimony. She relied on intellectual arguments, abstractions, and burdensome facts.

About the Author

Jarrett Barnhill is a native of rural eastern North Carolina. He earned his BA from the UNC-Chapel Hill in anthropology and is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Medicine. As a psychiatrist, Barnhill has studied the effects culture change and emotional responses to social stress.

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