Some Minor Cultural Notes to Start the Year
Recession Practicalities

REFLECTIONS: The South

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Following up on my offering of a few weeks ago in which I asked, “What’s the matter with the South?”, let me be a bit more specific. How come Oklahoma, where the waving wheat sure smells sweet, has produced two of the worst and most ineffective members of the United States Senate in Dr. Tom Coburn and James Mountain Imhofe? They make the rest of their Republican colleagues seem moderate - well, sort of.

In his latest caper, Inhofe went to the Copenhagen climate change summit as a self-described, one-person “truth squad.” As the top Republican on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Inhofe could bring responsible criticism, even skepticism to the issue of climate change. Instead he has chosen to be a flat earther, calling former Vice President Al Gore “full of crap” and declaring Global warming, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

When he was asked in Copenhagen who perpetrated the hoax and why, Inhofe replied, “it started in the United Nations and the one in the United States who really grab ahold of this is the Hollywood elite.” A Der Spiegel reporter, who doesn’t play by the neutered American rules, told Inhofe, “You’re ridiculous.”

Coburn is a pediatrician known as “Dr. No” because of all the bills and nominations he has held up because he doesn’t believe in government (which pays him well and he is supposed to serve).

During the last days of the long health care reform debate, Coburn, who has sworn the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” suggested quite clearly that the American people should pray that one of the Democrats will not be able to make it to the Senate cast the 60th vote to break a Republican filibuster. There was no mistake that he was referring to the dean of the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is 92.

Coburn’s one-man “Death Panel” took place on the floor of the storied Senate chamber, but no Republican stepped forward to remonstrate Coburn (Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois asked Coburn to explain himself; Coburn said he meant no one to come to harm.). But I think he did.

The Republicans could have signaled they would not filibuster the procedural vote so that the frail, wheel-chair bound Senator Byrd need not make the trip from his home on a snowy night. But if Byrd did not attend to vote, the health care bill would have been stopped. So almost as if they were conspiring to worsen Byrd’s health, the Republicans repeatedly insisted on the procedural votes for which the Democrats needed Byrd.

But in defiance of Coburn’s call to prayer, Byrd was wheeled in for the 1:00AM Monday vote and the health care bill was on its way to passage on Thursday. As it turned out, Imhofe was absent on one vote, as if it were a devilish answer to Coburn’s prayer.

I’ve gone on at length into the antics of these two men, who were elected to legislate and not make fools of themselves and Oklahoma voters, because I have great respect for Democratic institutions like the U.S. Senate, in which only a few Americans get to serve. But what strikes me about Coburn and Inhofe and their not-so-merry band of right-wingers is what they have in common.

They are virulently and absolutist anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-taxes, anti-government and pro-gun. And these things they believe, they have said, because they purport to be Christians. I say “purport” because, as a Jew and lay person (who majored in philosophy), I cannot judge what is and what is not “Christian.” All I know, and value, is the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments and, in the New Testament, Jesus’ admonition that we should love one another.

Now to get to the controversial part of my rambling. When I asked a knowledgeable, church-going friend what sets Inhofe, Coburn and the rest of the very conservative southern Republicans apart from much of the rest of the country, he said, “They’re Christians,” as if that explained everything.

It is true that both Oklahomans are members of Washington’s “C-Street group,” a residence for fundamentalist Christian lawmakers who, under the guidance of a minister-adviser, try to impose their religious, theocratic values on policy. They make it a point to say they do not believe in the separation of church and state.

They may seem loopy, but according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Forum, they – and their right-wing cohorts in the House and Senate - appear to reflect constituents in their states and the region. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is a correlation between the region’s religious fundamentalism and its preference for right-wing politics.

A new Gallup survey concluded that with 80 percent of Americans identifying themselves with Christian religion, “the United States remains dominantly a Christian nation” with the highest proportion in the traditional Bible Belt states of the South. Here’s how the Pew poll sums up its December findings:

“At least 85 percent of people living in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama say they are certain that God exists. By contrast, in Maine, Connecticut/Rhode Island and New Hampshire/Vermont fewer than six in ten express absolute certainty of belief in God.”

The political differences are obvious.

More specifically, Oklahoma ranks 11th among the states in the percentage of people (80) “who say they believe in God with absolute certainty,” seventh in the percentage of people (69) who say religion is “very important in their lives” and seventh (50) in the percentage of people who say they attend services at least once a week. All these percentages are well above the national average.

But more deeply religious on all measures are:

• Mississippi, which is number one, (Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker)

• Followed by South Carolina (Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Demint, said to be the most right-wing member of the Senate)

• Alabama (Republican Sens. Richard Shelby, who questioned President Obama’s citizenship and Jeff Beauregard Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship because of his racist past and who was criticized by Rush Limbaugh for asking Judge Sonia Sotomayor during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, to pretend to be white and if she thought “Latino women were more qualified to be hair dressers or housekeepers”

• Tennessee, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both of whom were among the 30 (mostly southern) Republicans to vote against legislation giving a rape victim the right to sue an employer who was responsible

• Georgia, Republican Senators Saxbe Chambliss and Johnny Isakson who have sought to bar their state from using any federal health program

• Kentucky, Republican Senators Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who has enforced the unanimous opposition to Obama among Republicans

• Texas, Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.

There are a few exceptions – Democrats Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina - all of whom serve with more conservative Republican colleagues from their states.

One particular exception seems to prove my point: Utah, of course, is not in the south. But it’s among the most religious states in the Pew poll because of the dominance of the Mormon Church. Its Republican senators, Orin Hatch and Robert Bennett, while not as looney as some of their right-wing colleagues, are nevertheless unswerving conservatives who joined the rest of Republicans in opposing health care reform and virtually every Obama initiative.

I may be on thin ice, but I don’t believe this says anything about Christianity. After all, the southern-based civil rights movement came from the mostly black Christian churches with help from white clergy, Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

But the white fundamentalist deep South is not only conservative, and often racist, it is also plagued by persistent poverty, which is worse in the south than any other region, and the greatest number of citizens without health insurance, with a minimal education.

That’s fertile soil for the demagoguery, political and religious, of right-wing politics.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Seen and Heard


Comments

Here in New England we have actually had the theocracy the Christian right seems to seek ( Salem witch trials). A sort of ancestral memory of what happened in Salem may be one of the reasons so many New Englanders hold religion at arm's length.

My point in general is that when God and government get in bed together, it always seems to be necessary for lots of other people to suffer and die. It doesn't seem to matter whether the theocrats call themselves Christians, Muslims or whatever.

I lived in Oklahoma back in the '70s when Jim Imhofe was a rising star in politics. He didn't make any sense even then, but people loved him in his home district. That seems to be still the case. Sadly for Oklahoma and the nation, there has never been a shortage of pious bullies in that neck of the woods.

Many years ago, a columnist whose name escapes me wrote a penetrating essay that appeared in the *Buffalo News*, our newspaper. He (she?) argued, persuasively, that abortion rights had contributed to the demise of the Christian left. As I recall, his argument marshalled the long tradition of liberal Christians supporting progressive movements, including abolition, civil rights, and opposition to the Viet Nam war. But many leaders were troubled by abortion (Daniel Berrigan comes to mind) and--here the details of his argument escape me--the left and the church separated, losing a church-based moral authority the left had long enjoyed.

At the time, I found the argument useful, and I wish I could lay hold of the essay. Anyway, it goes some way toward explaining the right's domination of Christianity in the U.S.

In the first part of this century, I traveled in the South for business reasons and the office I worked out of was in Rome, Georgia. A small to medium sized town. And within a week I knew for a fact that racism simmered just below the civil appearance of the office staff. Also, it was obvious that the 'War of Northern Aggression' had not been forgotten. I thought I was in some sort of time warp as I had been in the South once before while in the Navy in the early 1960's. I had seen segregation up close and it had been a shock for this S. California white boy. Well, it still exists in the rural South and those are the people that vote for these nuts.

I know that people will call me a liar and say that racism is long gone from the South. Go spend a few weeks in a small southern town and then tell me that.

Educated voters won't vote for idiots like Coburn, Imhofe and the others you mentioned, so the problem is not going to go away until education is given the importance that NASCAR has. Maybe the next century?

"...the greatest number of citizens ... with a minimal education." As you say, there's a significant connection. Why? Because the two most important things that a good education provides are, I believe, (a) exposure to a range of ideas and values that may differ from those of one's family/tribe and (b) training in the ability to think conceptually and symbolically rather than only in concrete, literal terms.
It is thus not surprising to find a high correlation between poor education, literal interpretations of religious texts (think creationism and Al Qaeda) and blind obedience to Big Daddy and to the gods shaped in his image.

These men unfortunately reflect the thinking of a greater part of their constituency. You will not be surprised to learn that when Al Gore's film played in theaters throughout the United States it was shown for ONE day in Oklahoma City and was unadvertised. Information was available through a grapevine of the environmentally concerned. So clearly the people who needed to hear the message it did not.

As a Christian, I find this challenging. I have to ask myself, what is the responsibility of people who affirm Jesus as love, when others who make the same claim act as an affliction to their sisters and brothers? This is certainly what I think the Imhofes, Coburns, and Demints do.

As Mary Jamison pointed out, above in comments, some of us are left Christians -- we think we have obligations to our sisters and brothers whom we can see that are the foundation for our relationship with a Deity we can't see. And abortion has divided some such people.

Politically, I am among those progressives who believe it is important to try to bring as much of organized religion (all of 'em have their fundie types) into action for justice. This splits the potential opposition -- an opposition that often has tinges of racism and national arrogance as well as intolerance. I just worked a campaign within the Episcopal Church to extend full inclusion to LGBT people -- progress in such venues is good for the world well outside one smallish church body, I think.

Bravely written, Saul.

Saul, your intelligent post and the great comments it elicited are what make blogging important. I am sending this post to some people that need to wake up.

Tom Coburn and James Imhofe are poster boys for sheer ignorance. I would call them clowns, but I don't want to insult the working clowns.

As Marian Van Eyck McCain pointed out so well, lack of education is the strongest root of these 'so called' Christians. Like the Taliban, they distort their religion and use it to bolster their prejudices.

Marian's post struck a cord with me. Will we ever see our education system get the top billing it so rightly deserves? We fall short in so many ways in our country because we cannot remove our schools from the political arena. And I mean education for everyone, not just our children, our future. Like our health care system, the education system is terribly broken. Will the politicians ever wake up? Dee

Ignorance alone is no sin. Where I live, one out of five adults can't read above fifth grade level. "Willful ignorance" however is the deadliest of the eight deadly sins. Far worse than sloth, gluttony, envy or lust.
Dr. Tom Coburn and James Mountain Imhofe are classic perpetrators of the deadliest of sins and should spend eternity in hell (if such a place were to exist) for their transgression. Unfortunately we all must continue to be victims of their deliberate stupidity.

I'm one of Inhofe's (correct spelling) and Coburn's unfortunate constituents - a British born US citizen living in Oklahoma - atheist and socialist to boot!

I've written to both men complaining of their attitudes but without satisfactory response - or any response in the case of Inhofe. Coburn did send two replies, albeit standard form letters concocted for use on such radicals as myself.

I have to avert my eyes from their activities now in order to retain my sanity and prevent head explosion.

The good people of Oklahoma are a kindly lot, friendly and comapssionate, yet seem to wear blinkers when it comes to politics. There are some Democrats here, of course too - just not enough,
and Democrats for the most part are too weak-willed anyway.

I'd just like to respond to Brenda above who mentioned Al Gore's movie.
I didn't recall that it was shown for only one day, you could be right - we saw it at an afternoon showing in OKC, with a small audience - no more than 15, but all rose to their feet and applauded at the end. It was advertised in the regular schedules by the way.

Unfortunately the politics you describe is seen everywhere in this country, and not only be republicans (although they do tend to take the more repugnant side of arguments far more often).

Reading through the list you created, I wonder what that says about the citizens of our country? Not just the constituents, but every citizen. We are each responsible for the actions of every member of the political class through our own actions, words, and choices.

The only issue I take with your opinion is the tie you make to religion. Although it is definitely part of the platform and strategy of those members of congress, I am not sure it follows that religion leads to those beliefs, or those beliefs to religion. They ought to be separated. A mans religion is one thing, and may influence the vote, but I think you let them off too easily when you put them in the bucket of 'religious fundamentalism'.

I live in Oklahoma. Our politicians would be out of date in the 18th century. There really are no really attractive geographical features. The people are the first to tell you how friendly they are, but they aren't. Education is sorry, per capita income is very low and progressive thought is discouraged. On the positive side,job opportunities include BOTH McDonalds and Walmart, the weather isn't the worse,particularly if you like tornados. Still if you have a place for sale, some place else, any place else, I would be interested.

P.S. His name is Inhofe...Jim Inhofe. If he was from a family with a sense of humor they would have named him Jack...Jack Inhofe...but they are Republicans.

Imhofe to Inhofe - fixed. And thank you who pointed it out.

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