Gimme That Ole Time Religion

‘Mr Harris said that wealth creation was “absolutely” a Christian activity. “I think perpetuating wealth is a good thing,” he said. “If you can build wealth, and you can build an environment where you can perpetuate it and constantly give, I think it is the most honourable thing you can do.”

‘Mr Harris said his vision was to extend God’s kingdom by generating billions of dollars. Business Alpha, a Christian business network with which Mr Harris is associated, says on its website: “Peter’s Vision of Billions of Dollars for Millions of Souls is awakening business people everywhere to the fact that their businesses can be a channel for God’s blessing to others.” Mr Harris said businesses “should generate to (sic) a lot of money and take on a social dimension”.’

– John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 2004, on Peter Harris, founder and chairman of the Family First Party.

‘”God is stirring the hearts of key people across the nation,” [Peter Harris] told the [Assemblies of God] magazine Now! “He is equipping elite forces who are positioning themselves to influence entire communities and cities for Christ.’

‘Treasurer Peter Costello, for example, told 22,000 people at a Hillsong Conference in July: “We need to return to faith and the values which have made our country strong.”‘

– Daryl Passmore, Sunday Mail, 12 September 2004.

‘”Spot Satan’s strongholds in the areas you are living in (brothels, gambling places, bottle shops, mosque, temples-Freemason/Buddhist/ Hindu etc, witchcraft ” He urged followers to circle the place on a map. “If you are ready to pray against it, do so. If not, bring it to your church and ask your intercessors, through the pastor, to pull these strongholds down,” the [“Rise up Australia” call-to-prayer pamphlet] says.’

Ian McPhedran, Herald-Sun, 4 October 2004, on Danny Nalliah, Family First Senate candidate in Victoria.

‘Influential American evangelist Pat Robertson said yesterday that Evangelical Christians feel so deeply about Jerusalem that if President George W. Bush were to “touch” the city, Evangelicals would abandon their traditional Republican leanings and form a third party.’

Daphne Berman, Haaretz, 5 October 2004.

Like a lightning flash from God Almighty himself, out of the firmament came the Family First Party, electrifying the Australian political landscape in the October 9 election.

Family First has sprung fully blown out of the simmering enclaves of the pentacostal Assemblies of God. But the light on the hill is the Hillsong Church in outer suburban Sydney, a full service conglomerate on the Southern American model of preaching, beautiful people, pulsating togetherness and commercialisation.

In the antipodes, the eye has been on Hollywood as the commanding cultural import. Move over Hollywood; Southern Evangelism has found root in Australia.

For illumination on the mainspring of modern Evangelism, consider W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South, 1941. Here follows a liberally edited text, ellipses omitted; accuracy of transcription vouchsafed:

What our Southerner required was [not the Anglicanism of the Virginian aristocracy, which regarded emotion as a kind of moral small pox but] a faith as simple and emotional as himself. A faith to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them, and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace. A faith, not of liturgy and prayer book, but of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice. The God demanded was an anthropomorphic God ­ the Jehovah of the Old Testament.

A personal God, a God for the individualist, a God whose representatives were not silked priests but preachers risen from the people themselves. But the spirit of these sects was essentially Hebraic ­ their ideal theocratic.

Thus, as the nouveaux came to power, this spirit and this ideal came to power also, and the evangelical ministers armored all too often in ignorance and bitter fanaticism, virtually always in a rigid narrowness of outlook, entered upon that long career of always growing and generally inept sway over public affairs, over the whole mind of the South.

The triumph of the evangelical sects also naturally involved the establishment of the Puritan ideal. Adherence was demanded to a code increasingly Mosaic in its sternness. And this coincidentally with the growth of that curious Southern hedonism which was its antithesis. Hypocrisy? Far from it. One may say more simply and more safely that it was all part and parcel of that naïve capacity for unreality which was characteristic of him.

Outside of two or three exceptions, hardly any Southerner of the master class ever even slightly apprehended that the general shiftlessness and degradation of the masses was a social product. Hardly one ever concerned himself about the systematic raising of the economic and social level of these masses. These same men would take the lead in indignantly rejecting the Yankee idea of universal free schools maintained at the public charge ­ would condemn the run of Southern whites to group in illiteracy and animal ignorance in the calm conviction of acting entirely for the public good.

Within this [Southern] frame of politics and rhetoric the hammer and thrust of the Yankee did something else too: It called forth the fire-eating orator and mob-master. There were not many non-Anglican pulpits left in the South in 1857 which did not see the passage of Donati’s great comet as a herald of the imminent outpouring of divine wrath.

From the pulpit the word went forth that infidelity and a new paganism masking under the name of science were sweeping the world. From pulpit and hustings ran the dark suggestion that the God of the Yankee was not God at all but Antichrist loosed at last from the pit. [H]ear the Presbyterian Dr. J. H. Thornwell declaiming in 1850: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders ­ they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground ­ Christianity and atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity the stake.”

Everything was as it was because He had ordained it so. Hence slavery, and, indeed, everything that was, was His responsibility, not the South’s. So far from being evil, it was the very essence of Right.

The Reconstruction years left their mark upon the religious pattern of the South. In New England, the influence of the Transcendentalists and the Unitarians had already set up a definite drift toward the general sophistication and liberalization of the old beliefs. And in the decades from 1870 to 1900, the drift, reinforced by the rapid spread of scientific ideas, would continually gather head. More or less complete and open skepticism would become an increasingly common phenomenon. And everywhere north of the Potomac and Ohio rivers piety, remaining always a mighty force, would nevertheless grow steadily more gentle, more vague, and at the same time more rational.

But in the South the movement was in the opposite quarter. [T]he level of education and information in the South fell tragically in these decades. Actual illiteracy increased among the millions.

It fell out inevitably that the religion of the South was brought over to the twentieth century as simple, as completely supernatural and Apocalyptic, as it had been in the earliest decades of the nineteenth, and far more rigidly held, far more pugnacious and assertive, far more impervious to change.

The final great result of Reconstruction is that it reestablished what I have called the savage ideal as it had not been established in any Western people since the decay of medieval feudalism, and almost as truly as it is established today in Fascist Italy, in Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia ­ and so paralyzed Southern culture at the root. Here, under pressure of what was felt to be a matter of life and death, was that old line between what was Southern and what was not, etched in fire and carried through every department of life.

Tolerance, in sum, was pretty well extinguished all along the line, and conformity made a nearly universal law. Criticism, analysis, detachment, all those activities and attitudes so necessary to the healthy development of any civilization, every one of them took on the aspect of high and aggravated treason.

In the years from 1880 to 1895 all the great Northern schools were completely made over. And by 1900 the whole of Northern thinking was impregnated with the new Verstand. By 1900 Yankeeland had definitely taken its place in the vanguard and was already becoming a chief protagonist, not of the machine alone, but of the modern intelligence as well. The parsons of the South regarded the growth of this modern mind with a terror; they saw in it simply the Faustian hell-compact, a gigantic conspiracy to crush truth out of the world, to loose the beast in man, and to strip them of their ancient sway. Determined to preserve their flocks from its contamination at any cost, they were honestly convinced that the use of any means to the purpose was justified, and even required of them by Heaven.

It is [in the 1920s] of the most rapid expansion of Southern industrialism, of speculation, and of the rapid widening of the physical and special gulf between the classes that we find such sects as the Holy Rollers and the Church of God establishing themselves widely and solidly in the South ­ in the mill villages, in the poorest sections of the towns, and even in the countryside. And is it just at this time also that the traveling, feverish evangelists reached their heyday.

Thus the preachers of the frenetic sects themselves officially ascribe their great success, next after the workings of the Holy Ghost, to the rising demand of the people for a place where they might worship without feeling ashamed of their clothes and manners, and a religion that would stress and give outlet to emotion. And all the evangelists insisted even more than the politicians on their own lowly origins, and discoursed continually on the theme of the superior virtue and piety of the poor as against the stiff-necked rich, and the certainty that in heaven it would be the former who would sit at the head of the table.

The young man returning to his native place, particularly if he lived in the larger towns, might now and then find a few people tolerant enough by education or native temperament to listen to him amiably and quietly and perhaps to encourage him in some of his notions. But the general effect on the community, in all classes, was to produce terror and anger in one degree or another.

The very commonest white saw it as a menace to his interest, once it had been called to his attention by his masters; he felt within himself that it all constituted a danger to his conventional status as the superior of every Negro whatever.

And in the South it was naturally the textile mills which first began to suffer from [the 1929 Depression]. But the immediately precipitating factor in the case was that the mills of New England, which had remained depressed throughout the period since the war because of their inability to meet the competition of low wages in the South, had hit upon a device which for the moment enabled them to compete again and so inevitably to drive down prices. I mean the use of the so-called stretch-out system, under which, by forcing him to spend every working moment at the peak of nervous concentration, an operative is made to care for several times as many machines as was formerly considered a fair assignment.

Faced with that, the masters of the Southern mills responded in characteristic fashion ­ by proceeding to take the difference out of their employees in one way or another. Wage cuts became fairly common by the spring of 1929. And the stretch-out was introduced into Dixie, to become the match to the powder of the slow irritation and restlessness growing up between the surface in the whole period after the close of the war. The wage cuts were bitterly resented. For many families its immediate effect was a sharp and tragic reduction in income. The result was the first genuinely serious labor revolt the South had every known.

Indeed, the whole business community of the region, devoted as strongly as the mill masters to the notion that the maintenance of cheap labor and the status quo was essential to their well-being, participated in the feeling that the strike represented a direct and intolerable threat to their personal interests; as did all those swarming thousands who hoped to profit under Progress. For if the unionism and the strikes succeed in industry, would they not in time be likely to reach out into the country-side also? Would not [the spirit of the strikers] come eventually to infect not only the tenants and croppers, all white farm labor, but perhaps the very Negroes?

[U]nder the essential Calvinism of outlook which had been fixed by slavery before the Civil War and riveted home by the conditions of Reconstruction, it was widely felt in all classes that the strikes constituted a sort of defiance of the will of Heaven. God had called one man to be rich and master, another to be poor and servant. Heaven apportions its reward in exact relationship to the merit and goodness of the recipient ­ that both the mill-owners and their workmen were already getting what they deserved.

Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible, in its action ­ such was the South at its best. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism ­ they have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today.

* * *

Thus opined Wilbur Joseph Cash in 1941. Cash’s literary executor, Joseph Morrison, describes Cash as ‘an obscure North Carolina newspaperman’. Morrison notes that ‘[h]is life’s experience had taught him the inifite capcity of the South for self-deception. Cash committed suicide soon after the publication of The Mind. He would not live to witness the great upsurge of an ‘essential Calvinism of outlook’ after 1945, and an unprecedented access to political influence in Washington.

EVAN JONES can be reached at:



Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached