`New South' Outgrows Boundaries: Influence Being Felt in Politics, Religion, Culture

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

`New South' Outgrows Boundaries: Influence Being Felt in Politics, Religion, Culture


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The "New South" has been heralded several times since a newspaper editor coined the phrase in the 1880s.

Yet this newest phase - begun in the 1970s and marked by economic growth and the withering of racial segregation - may have gone beyond the boundaries of the 11 Confederate states to parts of the country that once sneered at the region of the "Lost Cause."

"Historically, the South had been very separate and distinct, but a lot of that has been overcome in the past 30 years," said Charles Reagan Wilson of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

"The fact is that the rest of the nation is beginning to be willing to listen to the South, which has not been true of the past," he said.

If anyone doubts the trend, a few current household names need only be recalled: Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich. They are products of the New South, Mr. Wilson said, and still retain some of its customs and color.

The more superficial Southern exports are plentiful, as Mr. Wilson shows in his new book of essays, "Judgment and Grace in Dixie." The nation has embraced country music and Elvis Presley, delighted in affable storytelling characters from Andy Griffith to Bill Clinton, smiled at Southern belle predominance in beauty pageants and studied the King James Bible phraseology of Southern literature.

The deeper influence, however, comes in politics and religion.

"The same issues of importance, pocketbook issues, show up in the South as in the North," said Del Ali, vice president of the Mason Dixon Poll. "But the South's solutions are different. They want less government and less regulation in economic affairs, but some government role in cultural and moral issues."

That is opposite of the liberal social vision of the North: Government control of the economy is good, but state regulation of "lifestyle choices" is bad.

While there's no proof that the South spawned the current national interest in small government and moral conformity, Mr. Ali said, that region has at least been ahead of the curve.

In the process, the South's politicians have become harder to pick out of a national crowd. No longer the colorful agrarian and race-conscious characters of the past, they are instead suburban economy boosters. They retain, however, the South's social conservatism. Mr. Wilson traces most of that to the region's religion.

The South was the seedbed for the new Christian Right. "Thus saith the Lord" rhetoric in politics today - too fiery for intellectuals and pols in the North - shows the impact of black civil rights clergy and conservative preachers.

"In the South traditionally, there was an easy public expression of religion," Mr. Wilson said. "People mostly believed the same thing, so you didn't have a plurality of views that made you keep it private."

The South's distinctive religious character has been traced to the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801. After that, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists all took on an evangelical character that became the distinctive Protestant majority by the 1920s.

"It's a proselytizing faith," Mr. Wilson said. "It's very aggressive."

Besides an evangelical spark, he said the South has an increasingly successful biracial model to export after generations of living down slavery, the Civil War, poverty and racial segregation.

"The New South's story is how those race relations are being worked out," he said. "It can be of great interest to the country. …

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`New South' Outgrows Boundaries: Influence Being Felt in Politics, Religion, Culture
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