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Understanding the South Ain't Easy

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Ezra Klein takes a brief look at a DailyKos poll that finds what I've known all along: Southerners are a different breed. It's okay. I can say that. I are one. I mean, I is one. I mean, Yes ma'am, I am a southerner. I'm also fairly progressive. But I'm not so clear cut myself.

You see, I'm really somewhere in the middle. I don't believe in government "handouts," but I also don't believe in permitting growing socioeconomic inequities to continue unchecked. I believe that a woman and her doctor are the only two individuals who have the right to determine if an abortion is warranted, but I also believe that abortions are a terrible thing that society in general should try to avoid--just ask most any woman who has had one how pleasant her experience was. I'm consistently pro-life in the sense that I think we should be minimizing the need for abortions, not executing criminals, and putting in place checks on things like guns, drugs, and other "dangerous things" that pose a threat to life.

On many more similarly contentious issues, I have a foot on both sides of the line. Does this mean that I am indecisive? Not at all. It means that I see the world not as black and white, but with varying shades of gray.

No party--at least not one that stands a chance of having a candidate elected to national office--espouses all of my views. So I have to pick and choose. I have to reflect on my values and prioritize my voting issues, and do my best to select the candidate who seems to align most closely with my own positions.

Somewhere along the way, the Republicans convinced the South that they were the official party of Christians. They managed to do this quite convincingly. In fact, they were so convincing that they won election after election on the basis of moral issues, while simultaneously championing economic policies that had the effect of continuing to keep the South impoverished compared to the rest of the country. There's a fine book, What's the Matter with Kansas? that explains this paradoxical triumph.

While I believe firmly in the separation of church and state, I do not think that such a separation is especially warranted in the decision-making of each of us as individuals. I am a Christian, but it became clear to me long ago that the warped version of conservatism being peddled in America did not align well with my faith. The Jesus I know is quite radical, and as Jim Wallis has pointed out repeatedly, was quite outspoken on the issue of caring for the poor, healing the sick, and the like. The phrase "social justice" encapsulates neatly the intersection of my political and religious beliefs. So, if I must accept a party affiliation as a label, it would most likely be the religious left. If that sounds weird to you, it's merely a testament to the excellent job the right has done to brand itself as the party of the faithful.

Now, not all southerners I know are conservatives. There's my Granny, who while possessing some of the strongest faith I've ever known, has been a Democrat since the Depression and the days of FDR. Of course, when I spoke with her recently, she was quick to tell me just how "screwed up all of them are." Then there's my aunt, who has benefited enormously from several government programs, and shows her support by voting for the Democrats who championed those programs.

But there's also my wealthy uncle--also religious--who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the taste of which he has come to like quite a lot. His deeply held--but often wrongheaded--beliefs tend to stem from a lack of understanding of some of the realities that live one county--and even one causeway--over from the place he calls home. He resists the idea of having his wealth redistributed by "big government" to help "lazy" people have a better existence. I think that's fairly natural. It's also why the Bible says "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." We totally dig our stuff.

So, there you have it. Right in my own family tree, I have the full sociopolitical spectrum of the South represented. It's the "Bible Belt" so religion is prevalent, but it's also frequently subject to self-serving human interpretations. Wealth and poverty exist side-by-side and values collide in fascinating ways. What can explain the South's continued faith in the right? Is it morality-driven? I think it must be, because southerners as a whole are far too poor for their support of fiscal conservatism to make much sense at all. How can the religious left begin to reclaim the moral debate in politics? It seems that the South is the last Republican stronghold, so it makes sense that we should begin by understanding the South. Unfortunately, that ain't so easy.
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