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David HIll: Southern paradox without merit

Sunday’s New York Times contained an odd, even offensive, op-ed piece by ostensibly “conservative” columnist Ross Douthat. Perhaps reeling in the wake of East Coast liberals’ criticism of some of his orthodox religious views on issues like public policies on gays, Douthat may have sought to find common ground with his “progressive” brethren by engaging in the last acceptable form of discrimination in this nation: bashing America’s Deep South and Southerners. 

His thesis is that there is a paradox between the South’s religiosity and its manifest problems, which Douthat summarizes as struggling “mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.” Social disarray? Wow, I moved back to a small town in the “Heart of Dixie,” Alabama, just a few years ago and haven’t seen this “social disarray” of which Douthat speaks on my frequent 100-mile trips along I-85, the Deep South’s main street.

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While it’s easy to disagree with the core of Douthat’s central premise in ruminating on this so-called Southern paradox, he does eventually offer some justifications for problems of the South, explanations that are both accurate and justified. And he eventually works his way toward some criticisms of the church and the state that are more universal than simply in the South. The state and society do place limits on the church’s ability to solve social problems. So credit is given to Douthat where credit is due. 

But his initial denigration of the South as the foundation of his expressed opinion is simply prejudice. It’s often factually flawed and the remaining truths are poorly elucidated. For example, he focuses on the failures of the white Protestant while giving the black church or Southern Catholic a free pass. So how does a black and Catholic Deep South state like Louisiana fare? Read on.

Let’s start with an easy one: Douthat’s contention that the Deep South, despite its religiosity, is rife with political corruption, more so than less pious places. There is no systematic social scientific evidence to arrive at such a conclusion. The Washington Post recently looked at a wealth of data on this topic, and there are myriad ways to crunch the numbers. But their penultimate take on the issue, adopted from Business Insider, is that the top 16 most corrupt states include, in order, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kentucky, Alaska, Montana, Mississippi, Alabama, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Illinois. Only three of those are in the “deepest South” of which Douthat speaks so critically when he decries the region’s “political corruption.” 

According to that same study, South Carolina, the first to fight for the Confederacy, is dead last in corruption. Hard data is a stubborn impediment to Douthat’s thesis. And Douthat might want to look closer at the notion that it’s mostly white Protestants who fail to impede corruption, given Louisiana’s dominant Catholic and black congregations. Pew data suggest 48 percent of Louisiana’s residents are Roman Catholic or historically black Protestants, while just 9 percent are mainline Protestants and 31 percent are evangelicals.

Douthat also fails to mention that Protestant denominations like the Methodists made massive investments in establishing Deep South social institutions like hospitals and institutions of higher education from the mid-19th century onward, but often were forced to relinquish control to states or corporate entities because of the complexity of running such entities in modern economic and statist circumstances. These same church entities now run more manageable local food banks, Habitat for Humanity chapters, programs for the developmentally disabled and so forth. These admirable church efforts are worthy of praise, not criticism. 

The Deep South church is a just another victim of statism, not an enabler. Sure, churches don’t prosecute corrupt politicians. Isn’t that what Harvard-trained prosecutors gone South are supposed to do? 

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.