The Trenches of the Culture War


Photo from A Typical Joe of some Georgia roadside signage. Why don’t I ever see anything like this in New York City?

The opening sentence in today’s Times Magazine cover story (about the state of political confusion in America’s Christian Right) depicts a phenomenon I’ve long wondered about:

The hundred-foot white cross atop the Immanuel Baptist Church in downtown Wichita, Kan., casts a shadow over a neighborhood of payday lenders, pawnbrokers and pornographic video stores. To its parishioners, this has long been the front line of the culture war.

Indeed, whenever I travel in Bible Belt country or in so-called “red states”, I am often struck by the absolute depravity and crass exploitation that I see all around me — in places where, as conventional wisdom would have it, the people are supposed to be the most morally upstanding Americans, especially when compared to people like me, an amoral atheist New Yorker.

New York City has its seedy side, of course, but what you see in the red states is way different. If you drive along the main highways of West Virginia, rural Pennsylvania, Texas, Indiana — almost anywhere, it seems — you are bound to pass long stretches of seedy strip clubs, quasi-legal gambling venues, drug and alcohol addiction centers, DUI lawyers, and corrupt check cashing places for miles and miles. You’ll even see billboards for abortion clinics.

But among these you will also find a seemingly equal number of churches and religious groups whose primary mission is to save local people from the very businesses that operate next door. Driving down the highway it’s a moral checkerboard: church, strip club, church, slot machines, church, payday loans, etc. These two opposing forces are literally positioned right next to each other, like opposing armies in WWI, entrenched a hundred feet apart. You get a distinct feeling that there is a war going on from door to door in thousands of American communities.

Maybe I just don’t notice it, but I can’t think of any part of New York City, or anywhere in New England, where you can find this kind of Sodom & Gomorrah right out in the open where families have to see it every single day. Which is why I’m often more than a little startled when I see gigantic billboards of ecstatic naked porn stars in exactly those parts of the country which are, by conventional wisdom, supposed to be the most righteous and moral places on Earth.

Can it really be that I have a puritanical streak in me? I personally don’t find the sex businesses offensive, exactly– at best they’re sad and stupid, and that’s enough for me to not really want to look at them — but IMHO the casinos and rip-off lenders are downright evil and thoroughly destructive to society.

All told, you can hardly blame red staters for thinking that America is in a culture war when their highways are already raging moral battlefields. But the war is not what the media or the leaders of the religious right would have you think it is. It’s not Blue States vs. Red States. I think the Times has it right: The front line is within the red states, where husbands are fighting wives, parents are fighting children, and neighbors are fighting neighbors.

Red staters, in turn, cannot blame New York and LA for their addictions to gambling, pornography, crystal meth, or easy credit. They should look to their own governments, Democrat and Republican, and into their own souls.

One might be tempted to attribute this phenomenon to simple moral hypocrisy, concluding that that the most religious people are, in fact, the most depraved (as seen in recent GOP scandals). But that’s just too simple. I think that people are driven to embrace religion, and then to back religious political movements, because of the moral corruption they feel directly threatens them and their families. But that meanwhile the broader culture, unanchored, confusedly drifts from one extreme to the other, from righteousness to sin, in the same town, the same family, and even in individual people.

The problem, I suspect, is that most of the leadership of the religious right is obsessed with political objectives that do not even attempt to address the real problems that people face and fear — poverty, addiction, teen pregnancy, ignorance — and instead they attack problems that have nothing to do with real-world core moral and social challenges. They want to lower taxes for the wealthy, make gay marriage illegal, prevent discussions of sex and contraception in school, roll back or oppose civil rights for immigrants, women, religious minorities. These issues are powerful for getting political backing and electoral popularity, but they do not help in the real battlefield where people’s lives are ruined by ignorance and addiction.

Until the religious right realizes that New York City is not Mordor projecting a beam of evil at them and tearing their families apart, and that the real problem is right in their own backyard, they, and we, will never be at peace.


9 responses to “The Trenches of the Culture War”

  1. Chris, you ought to read Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” for a really thorough look at this condition, and the (to me) completely crazy, self-destructive logic that allows a poor, uninsured Kansan, living across from a meth lab, to vote for a multimillionaire old white GOP candidate just cause he says he talks directly to God. (And by the way, if that candidate said he talked to God through his TV set or on the cellphone, wouldn’t that be, um, *insane*?)

    It is sort of astonishing, that weird combination of church and sin sitting side by side. I had never thought of it this way before, but I think you’re right: people in Arkansas or whereever who see SuperMegaXXX billboards as they come out of church must see that and think: wow, if it’s this bad here, it must be *so much worse* in New York, LA, San Francisco, or other hotbeds of immorality. And of course, for those of us who live in places like that, we know how completely wrong that is.

  2. In response to an offline question I got, I should say that I didn’t mean to suggest that New Englanders or blue staters are more moral than their Bible Belt or red state counterparts (although, for one thing, the divorce rate is consistently lowest in liberal areas and highest in conservative areas).

    I suspect it has more to do with the corrupting effects of business + government, combined with a weak or ignorant electorate. You can’t have this open air depraity without the consent of the local and state governments. The laws, it seem to me, permit payday loans, low-end casinos, and smut shops to open in red states more than in blue states because maybe red state governments are more, shall we say, open to business. Meanwhile the electorate doesn’t have the incentive, for whatever reason, to vote the officials responsible out of office.

    Ultimately, though, I think the biggest correlation is poverty. Poverty begets exploitation, period. In fact, as I think about it, the closest thing I see to this kind of stuff in my region is in the poorest neighborhoods, where cheap credit ads and pawn shops certainly exist.

    Maybe this phenomenon (of sin living right alongside righteousness) is entirely attributable to poverty, where poor people simultaneously are exploited and are seeking salvation from that exploitation. Which doesn’t undermine my original point, which is that blue states are not America’s source of sin and moral corruption, and that the real American moral battle is being fought in the neighborhoods and households of the red states.

  3. As a transplant living in Montgomery, AL, (ex-military, political centrist, agnostic/atheist) I have to say that such “culture cliques” in the south are surprising. Racism is alive and well, church is a status-quo, and what you’ve run into is the norm. The key factor being that those churches you see aren’t there to save the locals. Walk in to nearly any church down here and the first thing they do is check to see what color you are. Next, they eyeball your clothes, make sure your hair is cut, and if you don’t fit their idea of what is upstanding, you’re snubbed. If you DO meet their criteria of “acceptable,” the next step is grilling you to see what you do for a living, what neighborhood you live in, that sort of thing. Church has become a meeting place for business men and dens of like-minded intolerance. With such corruption within the walls, you can see why the areas surrounding them look like they do.

    The image presented to outsiders is the impression you have…of churches out to save the unsaved. Of high morality out to make the world a better place. In reality, those businesses are run by the very people who worship within the walls of that looming church.

    Another problem you have down here is the religious oppression. It’s thick, if you aren’t religious it can impact your job, your home life, etc. You’re required to embrace Christian faith at some level in order to function day-to-day. That means plenty of nonreligious people are pretending to be in order to be successful. Those that refuse to tolerate it buck so hard against the system that you see seedy bars popping up, adult stores, and they’re located some place to be a blaring “in-your-face” symbol to the religious. And I personally think much of the violence you see stems from that oppression, and everyone pushed a little closer to their breaking point.

    I don’t see where the south is blaming New York or LA for the evils of the world, I do see liberal views being attacked, but again I think that is part of the religious oppression. They tacked on with the republican party, therefore the other guys must be the bad guys. Southerners are pretty bad about seeing everything as black and white, pun intended.

  4. @Dave: Your insights are really interesting, thanks for sharing them. Just one thing, though. When you write:

    The image presented to outsiders is the impression you have…of churches out to save the unsaved. Of high morality out to make the world a better place. In reality, those businesses are run by the very people who worship within the walls of that looming church.

    I should say that the “impression” I depicted in the article isn’t the same as the opinion I actually have. The opinion I have is actually pretty close (closer than I am willing to admit) to your own opinion. The general impression that churches and red staters are beacons of good morality is entirely, IMHO, a false impression that definitely needs to be put to rest.

    I am simply inclined to think that people all over the country generally want to avoid being poor, ignorant, drug-addicted, indebted, pornography consumers. People in blue states have the same problems, but it seems to me that (a) we don’t quite have it as bad, socioeconomically, and (b) we don’t respond so dramatically to our hard times through oppressive religiosity. Make no mistake, I think that repressive religiosity is directly related to rampant social problems. Fix the social problems, and you fix the religious oppression. I don’t put much faith (no pun intended) in the idea that religion is the best or only solution to social problems, however. Oftentimes, as in the examples you give, religion stagnates and serves merely as a fig leaf for the social problems, enabling them to continue unchecked.

    Also, I wasn’t so much talking about the business behind the churches as I was about the collective belief of the parishoners in attendance. People go to church because they want to save themselves, their families, and their communities (and to some people, their country and the world, too) from the threats they face. At some level, they really do want to be better people. Even if the pastor is a crook (and I doubt as many of them are as you suggest), and even if the attendees are doing so mostly out of conformity, there is an element of a shared desire to combat the things that tear their social fabric apart. The mere act of attending church brings people together, no matter how hypocritical the church itself may be. And to that extent, churches stand as a counterweight, if for only one day a week and if for only some people, to the societal threats people and families face.

  5. While I do agree that some go to church for religious morality and to be better people, I can’t agree they all do. I can’t even go so far as to say most do.

    I’ve seen far too many religious ties in local business. From signs that read “This business is ran by our lord and savior Jesus Christ” to business names like “Faith Contracting” with a cross in the center of it. I’ve also seen prominent figures in the church, who have also ran for local offices, breaking the law. From shady business deals, embezzlement, and insurance fraud to high ranking officials using their seat to buy prime land at low costs, and storing poached game meat in freezers below a liquor store. All while parading around as a good Christian. Those leading the ministry I can’t say are guilty of such actions, only those in attendance.

    I’m not sure the religious oppression is an effect either, more of the cause. Often people turn to religion in hard times as you stated, but down here, they’re brought up with the religion affecting every part of their lives.

  6. Hi Christopher,

    I live in the LA basin and have not traveled a lot in the Red States, as I generally prefer London. All that said, I had a situation that happened today that reminded me that in the end it comes down to economics.

    I have been lucky enough or is it “privileged” enough to be born into an upper middle class Orange County family that valued a college education before all else. I live a comfortable middle class life as a web designer / developer in a beach town in SoCal.

    The plumber came to replace my kitchen sink today and some unpleasant remarks, to my liberal middle class ears, were made. Once the sink was fixed and the plumber left, I was left to ponder what was said. I realized it was not at all about Chinese made sinks but all about lost American manufacturing jobs, thus lost opportunities and lost wages.

    For those of us in “blue” states with information tech jobs who have the luxury to be flexible and change with the economy we can also afford to look down on the red states and wish they were as righteous as we are. But, if you are underemployed or unemployed or partially employed at a job you hate with an education that is sub-standard in a town and/or state with little other opportunities, guess that job at the strip bar looks pretty damned good.

    Stripping, meth, payday loans, et al, are a reality for a lot of folks without hope or opportunity. Are any of us here who are commenting willing to go create a widget or like that can be created in a factory in Oklahoma or Alabama that would create stimulating jobs for the underemployed?

    Nah, we are all scared shitless of class.

    Don’t discount religion. Yes, some of the religious are fucks. Some are con artists. But some people who do a lot of good and get a lot out of the communities they participate it.

    To that end, I will leave this bit with you: In 1998, on rock music mailing list I was on, one of the European list members mourned Europe’s current souless, secular state (even though he was a stated agnostic), because without a good religion, you don’t get good sinnin’, and without good sinnin’ with the deep down knowledge that it is sin, you don’t get good rock’n’roll.

    He listed Jerry Lee Lewis as a man who sinned hard on Saturday night across the tracks in a juke joint, but was repentin’ on Sunday morning at his cousin’s church.

    The other Europeans on the list were appalled at this, but over time as the idea sunk in…


  7. Dear Sir:

    You are absolutely right, and you’ve expressed your point brilliantly.

    Being originally from Utah (while not Bible belt, it remains one of the most stalwart red states, and another prime example of religion creating a political war zone), I’d like to add a little more to your point:

    Frankly, with religious politicians the emphasis has never been on helping the poor and needy. Most of them have seen organized religion in the most cynical way– as a fast route to power.

    For example, take Mitt Romney, Orrin Hatch, and Mike Leavitt, Utah’s own contributions to the GOP. Each one of them shares similar characteristics: a pious boyscout self-image which frequently gets misconstrued by the outside world as a bit creepy and high-minded, an adherence to the current GOP party line as if it were gospel (never any creative deviation), and a demonstrated fundamental difficulty in dealing with poor people.

    All in all, not particularly the type of person you’d see showing Christian compassion and goodness to the less fortunate.

    Surely if these are the most charismatic people church communities across the nation can put forward as leaders, then priorities among these communities are not as clear-cut as they’d lead you to believe.

    It almost seems as if the requirements for being a powerful man in a religion are different (and in some ways less stringent) than those for a secular politician. Religious politicians can have an electorate almost handed to them by ward leaders (you call them pastors) working hard on their captive audience every Sunday.

  8. As a former red state dweller, I have to agree w/ what you say here.

    I’d also like to point out that there are no billboards for abortion clinics that I know of. Usually, these are fake clinics and the ads are placed by anti choice organizations. A woman considering an abortion would call these numbers. The clinic might set up an appointment or ask her if she’d like to speak to somebody about her situation. In the end, the woman would be ministered to, dissuaded with all of the power the fake clinic could muster and ultimately tracked (her personal information would be in the clinic’s hands.).

  9. As a resident of Wichita, KS, I agree with the assessment of Immanuel Baptist’s “cross”. I couldn’t have stated the real culture war scenario better myself. Remember, not all of us who live in “Red” states are “red-staters”.