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Unbuckling the Bible Belt from the Legacy of Slavery

Hardly anyone mentions that the "the Bible Belt" and "the Black Belt" refer to essentially the same part of the country. That easily overlooked fact is of enormous significance.
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What is going on in the Bible Belt in this presidential year may be historic. Much media attention during the presidential primaries was paid to Mike Huckabee's success in the "Christian" states. The Reverend Governor Huckabee, we heard over and over again, was winning the "Christian" vote. "In the Bible Belt," MSNBC's Chris Matthews said of Huckabee, "he practically owns the place." Such comments obscured the fact that there are two very different versions of Christianity in this region, both of which are legacies of antebellum slavery.

The existence of another form of southern Christianity was reflected in a detail that no one addressed in the primaries: the intriguing fact that Barack Obama out-polled Huckabee nearly two-to-one in the Bible-Belt South.

The only state of the Bible Belt in which Sen. Obama did not win vastly more votes than Huckabee was the governor's home state of Arkansas. Looking at the total votes cast for the two candidates across the Bible Belt (including Missouri, which is a Border State in both Civil War and Bible Belt terms) before the Republican nomination was decided, Obama's margin over Huckabee was 66% to 34%.

Yet when Sen. Obama's success in the South was discussed during the long primary season, the section that is called the Bible Belt in Gov. Huckabee's case was described instead as a region with a large African-American population. Hardly anyone mentions that the "the Bible Belt" and "the Black Belt" refer to essentially the same part of the country. That easily overlooked fact is of enormous significance.

Is it mere coincidence that the Bible Belt is also the Black Belt? Why has biblical literalism held sway so powerfully in the region of the nation that used to practice and suffer under slavery on a large scale?

Martin Marty of the University of Chicago recalls a fellow historian once noting that the white southern Protestant clergy prior to the Civil War "came across as moral, devout, pastoral, learned, caring, informed, and generous preachers. And also to a person they defended human slavery, claiming that it was a response to divine mandates and divine will, biblically authorized."

It is a most noteworthy -- yet largely unnoted -- fact that the embrace of biblical literalism by whites in the American South in the mid-19th Century sprang from the common (and expedient) belief that the Bible provided a justification for slavery, a practice which undeniably is sanctioned on many of its pages.

None of those pages, however, is one that quotes Jesus. Their Bible-based defense of slavery led antebellum whites to enslave Jesus by tying his name to practices and beliefs that were antithetical to his teachings.

The legacy of slavery continues to weigh down this part of the nation in many ways. The most obvious of those deleterious effects, racism, is in remission, insofar as it is no longer explicitly practiced by the South's institutions and is fading on the personal level. But other toxic residues of the peculiar institution, such as stubborn and harmful resistance to change and the section's persistent poverty, especially but not exclusively among blacks, continue to harm the region.

Perhaps the heaviest burden of slavery that still holds down the section, though, is the yoke of a distorted biblical literalism that selectively emphasizes certain passages of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament while ignoring almost all of the teachings of Jesus.

The Jesus Thieves of this brand of "Christianity" preach from a 'Holey' Bible that cuts out all of the central teachings of Jesus, those difficult injunctions to turn the other cheek, help the poor, and love enemies.

There has, however, long been in the South an opposing concept of Christianity, one that emphasizes the Jesus of the Gospels along with the parts of the Hebrew Bible that speak not of slavery, but the escape from it. That was the Christianity of the slaves, of abolitionists of both races, and of African-American churches after emancipation. It was the Christianity that inspired both blacks and whites during the Civil Rights Movement. It was--and is--the Christianity that embraces what Jesus preached, instead of using him as a celebrity endorsement for such anti-Jesus positions as war, intolerance, and favoritism for the rich.

While Mike Huckabee alluded properly during his primary campaign to the teachings of Jesus on some economic issues, his appeal was principally to the sort of Christians who remain bound to the 'Holey' Bible they inherited from the Old South. It is those who still adhere to that hidebound version of the religion that were attracted by his fundamentalist talk.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, preaches from the texts of that other stream of southern Christianity, the one that follows what Jesus said. Adherents to that form of the religion seem to be going for Obama's talk of hope and change and reconciliation.

It won't be easy, but because Sen. Obama speaks a language that Christians of both brands in the South can understand, he has the potential -- beginning on Election Day but, if he is elected, particularly later as president -- to unbuckle the Bible Belt from those who have for so long been standing Jesus on his head. Maybe that Belt can at last be re-buckled to Jesus. Emancipation from a "Christianity" that was totally distorted by slaveholders would go a long way toward making the white South "free at last."

Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America 2008-07-01-GTJcoversm.jpg (Crown). Among his other books is The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (Random House).