The current “debates on the separation of church and state” going on in Indiana “remind us of how truly free we are in the United States” editorialized The News-Sentinel on July 5, and on July 9, The News-Sentinel pointed out that “conservatism needs a makeover.” Yes, these two topics are directly connected at the hip or lower, not the head.
Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry is sermonizing once again in Indiana and in Tennessee (the two places where I live in retirement), and Lewis once again, is relevant. Gantry used to be a distant memory in America, but even H.L. Mencken would say if he were alive that Gantry has never been a distant memory in Hoosierland and the Volunteer State.
This fundamentalist hypocrite – the living, breathing Gantry, as it were – is now back with a vengeance serving up corn pone and brimstone to promulgate a strict public morality. The type was on its way to the margins in Lewis’ day; the 1920s were when modernity won, if not, in fact, in the great heartland, at least in the larger self-image of a nation gorging itself on jazz, burlesque, cars, booze and H.L. Mencken. But a supermajority Republican dominance in Indiana and Tennessee has brought back the great clash between the forces of fundamentalism and secularism, a clash secularism will win when the day is over for freedom’s sake.
This clash goes back to Jesus’ command to separate, but most of us agree on “rendering to Caesar.” The problem comes over what belongs to whom. The Supremes don’t have the guts – not even Catholics and three Jewish justices – to clear the confusion.
Why do cons need a “makeover”? The triumph of the anti-government, anti-tax, conservative agenda comes from the “white flight” from Atlanta (Kevin Kruse), in my view. The “back story” from Atlanta, particularly in Sunbelt cities, was fed by racial antagonism. The politics of suburban secession was replicated nationwide.
I point to Atlanta because white reaction to integration illustrates the links between massive resistance and modern conservatism. Exodus, huh? The articulated desires for lower taxes and less government are all exacerbated by racial tensions. Yes, race in America is immutable. Yes, change is called for. Freedom, huh?