|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 7 (1989)|
It is a truism to say that the South has been and remains one
of the most conservative -- politically and religiously conservative
-- regions in the nation. Whereas in the past when one spoke of
religion in the South the Scopes trial may have come immediately
to mind, today it is school textbook controversies or the contemporary
version of circuit riding evangelists, the televangelists, mighty
and fallen. Among these are religious broadcaster Pat Robertson
of Virginia Beach, Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Virginia, Oral
Roberts of Tulsa, Jim Bakker (not himself a Southerner) and the
Fort Mill, South Carolina, based PTL Club, and Jimmy Swaggart
of Baton Rouge. Though these names are familiar, it is too seldom
recognized that within Southern religion there are trenchant critics
who are as loyal to their Southern identity as they are unforgiving
of American -- not just Southern -- religion.
I want to look briefly at two of these Southern critics of American
religion, John Crowe Ransom and Will D. Campbell. Widely disparate
in terms of vocations, socio-economic backgrounds, and theological
commitments, these two men, separated by three decades, nevertheless
think of themselves as Southerners and offer a Southern analysis
of the ills of American religion. They engage in identical task,
to use Biblical language, the task of naming the powers, the invisible
forces of evil which manifest themselves in human institutions.
And they are in at least partial agreement as to the identity
of these powers which oppress the human spirit. A comparison of
these two critics may, thus, provide us with some insight into
the character of Southern religion and perhaps into the Southern
character itself, if there be such a thing.
John Crowe Ransom was born in April of 1888 to John James Ransom
and Ella Crowe Ransom. His father a preacher in the Methodist
Church and his mother an educated woman from an established family,
religion and education were from his earliest days prominent influences
upon him. Ransom entered Vanderbilt in 1903 and graduated in 1909,
his degree delayed by several years of teaching school during
that time. Following his graduation, he was selected as a Rhodes
Scholar and entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied classics
and philosophy. Ransom was taken by England, and excelled in his
studies there. He returned to his alma mater in 1913 to teach
English. By the mid-twenties he was highly acclaimed for his poetry,
having published three volumes. He was also mentor to the group
of Nashville poets who published their work in The Fugitive.
But it was in 1929 that Ransom turned his attention most decidedly
to religion. God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of
Orthodoxy, his first book of prose, is Ransom's critique of
He made no bold claims for this work. In a letter to Allen Tate
in 1929 he described it as "hot and hasty" but nevertheless
a sincere and badly needed work (Young, 181). It is a multi-faceted
book and we cannot do full justice to it here, but valuable insights
may be gleaned from even a hurried look.
Ransom's concern was with what he viewed as the trend to denude
God of those traits which had historically been attributed to
God. He found evidence of this trend in secular society with a
creeping scientism which "forgets the limitations [of humans]"
and which encourages instead hubris . The result of this
hubris is that human beings, not content with their role and status
in the world, employ their scientific knowledge to alter the world.
The result is a war upon nature that fails to recognize either
the dignity of nature or the dignity of human beings.
"Progress" and "industrialism" were the two
terms employed by Ransom to describe this scientism when applied
to human practices. Progress refers to the attempt to mold nature
to immediate human purposes and objectives without first having
identified ultimate human purposes and objectives, and without
having examined the consistency of these immediate objectives
with the ultimate purposes of human life. Here is how Ransom put
it in his essay, "Reconstructed But Unregenerate," in
I'll Take My Stand:
Progress never defines its ultimate objective, but thrusts its victims at once into an infinite series. Our vast industrial machine, with its laboratory centers of experimentation, and its far-flung organs of mass production, is like a Prussianized state which is organized strictly for war and can never consent to peace. Or . . . our progressivists are the latest version of those pioneers who conquered the wilderness, except that they are pioneering on principle, or from force of habit, and without any recollection of what pioneering was for. (8)The eventual result of this confidence in the human ability to remold nature for human purposes was not the happiness and freedom humans assumed would be gained from this mastery, but rather "slavery" and unhappiness. "Under industrialism," Ransom wrote, "we scourge ourselves like true fanatics" (187).
That is the contemporary problem, Ransom thought, but a problem
which could be felicitously resolved for human beings by returning
to the old orthodoxy. "Religion," Ransom argued, "enlarges
the God and limits man, telling the believer incessantly to remember
his limits and be content with his existing condition" (116).
Recognize nature's infinite variety, Ransom advises. And recognize
the mysterious purposes of an inscrutable God in nature. Therein
lies happiness. Therein lies salvation. Ransom does not suggest
that man ought to recognize our human limitations and the purposes
of an inscrutable God in nature because it would be an impiety
not to do so. Rather, a failure to acknowledge these realities
is ultimately a sin against the self.
But it is not only in science and in industrialism that men are
guilty of the failure to recognize the God of orthodoxy. The same
fault can be found in American religion, Ransom contended. In
American religion ethics had replaced theology; religion was being
reduced to morality. The reason for this was that the God of Israel,
a stern and inscrutable God, had been replaced by a New Testament
God, an "amicable and understandable God," whose primary
concern was the happiness and well-being of the human race. The
old God was "mysterious and not fully understood," "was
worshipped with burnt offering and sacrifice," and was "the
author of evil as well as good" (29). Ransom urged a return,
as he put it, to the Old Testament God, an inscrutable God whose
concern for human welfare was doubtful, a God who, if he offered
salvation after death, would nevertheless effect human casualties
in bringing about the salvation of some (154).
Why return to this God? Because without this God man forgets what
evil is, much to his own detriment. Without this God he neglects
and finally abandons religion and, forgetting his impotence before
nature, takes the destiny of the universe into his own hands,
thus creating a hellish existence for himself and for all of creation.
As Ransom wrote in a letter:
. . . little by little the God of the Jews has been whittled down by the Spirit of Science or the Spirit of Love or the Spirit of Rotary; and now religion is not religion at all, but a purely secular experience, like YMCA and Boy Scouts. (Young 180)So Ransom called for a return to a God "fully equipped with thunderbolts," a "virile and concrete God" before whom human beings would tremble with fear. Ransom calls man back to that old time religion in which God is God and this world exists to serve God's purposes, not human purposes, a theocentric not anthropocentric universe.
While Ransom's God is fully equipped with thunderbolts, Will D.
Campbell's God has no lack of olive branches. Indeed, it might
be said that Campbell's God is the very one about whom Ransom
warned, a New Testament God, loving in character.
Will D. Campbell, now of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, was recently described
as having "spent his 60 years elevating iconoclasm to a vocation"
(Gibble 570). He is, in the words of a Newsweek article
in 1972, a "bourbon-guzzling, tobacco-spitting, guitar-strumming
man who rarely preaches a Sunday sermon and believes that the
institutional church is perhaps the greatest barrier to the proclamation
of the Gospel" (5/8/72: 84). And he is a Baptist to boot.
Campbell was born in Amite County, Mississippi, in 1924 to a poor
but devout Baptist family. Early in his childhood he decided to
become a preacher, and at the age of seventeen he was ordained
by h is church to the gospel ministry. He attended Louisiana College
in Pineville briefly before his less than stellar performance
was interrupted by the war. Following his military service he
returned to the South where he enrolled first at Wake Forest from
which he received an A.B. degree, and then Tulane University from
which he received an M.A. in English. After Tulane he enrolled
at Yale Divinity School, graduating from there in 1952.
Campbell's first charge was in a small Louisiana parish. He left
that pastorate to serve as the chaplain at Ole Miss where he became
involved in the civil rights movement. In the mid-fifties at Ole
Miss the chaplaincy and civil rights activism did not mix well.
For this reason, in 1956 Campbell severed his relationship with
the University and became a race-relations specialist for the
National Council of Churches. In the early sixties, feeling his
freedom stifled by the NCC, Campbell left to become the director
of The Committee of Southern Churchmen and publisher of Katallagete.
He now spends his time in public speaking and writing. His books
include: Brother to a Dragonfly, The Glad River,
Cecilia's Secret, and Forty Acres and a Goat. He
is currently at work on a children's book and a book on the Baptists
and the Bible. He is pastor to a "pulpitless, roofless, unpropertied
and uncodified church," the Church of the Forty Acres and
a Goat, in Mt. Juliet.
Campbell's understanding of the Christian faith has remained more
or less the same since the early sixties. The cornerstone of his
understanding of the Christian gospel is II Cor. 5:19, "God
was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." God, in
the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, has redeemed and reconciled
all people to himself. And there is no reconciliation with God
independent of reconciliation with other persons. Furthermore,
there can be no genuine reconciliation of one person to another
independent of reconciliation to God. Thus the failure of all
"non-religious" attempts at solving social problems.
The task of the church is to act as the community of the reconciled.
And Campbell faults American religion for its failure to take
God's reconciliation seriously and to live as those reconciled
to God and to one another.
Like Ransom, Campbell recognizes the forces of evil in the world,
forces which oppress and enslave the human spirit. And, if anything,
Campbell has been more explicit about the identity of these forces
of evil. While never denying the presence of evil within the heart
of the individual, Campbell has emphasized the expression of evil
in institutional form. The state, the military-industrial complex,
the corporate economic structure, the academy -- the public school
system as well as the public and private universities, agribusiness,
the church -- all have been agents of oppression. All have victimized
the poor and the oppressed -- black and white alike. And Campbell
has made these victimized blacks and whites the special focus
of his ministry. Campbell speaks prophetically against these institutions
of oppression, warning people not to misplace allegiances, calling
Christians, liberal and conservative alike, from unholy alliances
with sinful institutions and back to a life as a reconciled people.
Campbell has also been an outspoken critic of the electronic church,
but his criticism of American religion has extended far beyond
the television evangelists to the "do-gooders" of the
liberal church. His iconoclasm, his radical critique of American
religion, his concern for the outcast are exemplified well in
the following excerpt from a recent interview. After bemoaning
the opulent lifestyle of Jim and Tammy Bakker before a Wisconsin
audience eager to hear about the decadent South, Campbell recalls,
he went on as follows:
"All that was built off the backs of the poor. If you chase wealth back far enough, you get into the mines and the fields. It's not the boss man who's digging the coal out of the ground and raising the crops. What's wrong with all this affluence in the name of gentle Jesus is that it's built off the exploitation of the poor." And of course, everybody listening was in general agreement. So I paused and said, "All right, what's the difference between that and the pope's jewels, or all those Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist steeples out there casting shadows on whores and pimps and addicts and bums with . . . seldom a gesture in their direction from any of us proportionate to what we spend on ourselves? If you push it to its conclusion, the difference is simply one of taste."Like John Crowe Ransom, Will Campbell calls out for a return to old-time religion. While Ransom called for a return to the Old Testament God, Campbell calls American religion back to the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. What he means, apparently, is that the church should return to small independent ministries to the poor and outcast. The church should renounce its reliance upon the state and its entanglement in institutions that violate the individual. The church should exist as a genuine community of reconciliation with open arms to all. Only then will the church truly be the church.
So someone got up and said, "Surely you're not saying that the Sistine Chapel is as ugly as some goddamn condominium with mirrors on the walls?" I answered by saying that I guess it's all right for the poor peasants of Italy to put their pennies in the box for the Sistine Chapel, but it's not all right for the widow on Social Security to send the $5 and $10 to the TV preachers. Then what we're talking about is the annihilation of the hillbillies and the rednecks. And I think when you get right down to it, that is what liberals upset over the electronic church and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority is all about. (Gibble 572)
The differences between Ransom and Campbell ought not to go unnoticed.
While both invoke the old-time religion, their understandings
of that old-time religion are radically divergent. Ransom calls
for a return to a stern, inscrutable God. Campbell believes the
face of this God has been revealed, that some, even if not all,
mysteries have been resolved, and that this God can be known as
a God of love.
Despite these differences, there remain significant areas of agreement.
Both recognize the presence of social or institutional forces
of evil in the world, an evil that does violence to the dignity
of the individual and the possibility of a good life. Both agree
that man's humanity is under attack from forces beyond the control
of the individual. The pastoral, agrarian ideal of Ransom is not
far removed from Campbell's vision of the communal life, free
of entanglement in institutions of oppression.
Both recognize the tragic nature of human existence. Ransom wrote
in God Without Thunder, "In tragedy the mind makes
the critical confession that human goodness and intelligent work
. . . do not actually produce their triumphant effect upon the
material world. . . . The moral order is a wished-for order which
does not coincide with the actual order or world order" (47).
He is no utopian idealist, nor is Campbell, with his understanding
of the depth and extensiveness of social evil. Instead they acknowledge
the finitude and limitations of individuals. And both believe
that religion is essential for the preservation of the dignity
and humanity of persons. Religion, true religion, makes one aware
of the forces of evil which denigrate persons and provides resources
for combating these forces.
Cleanth Brooks in "The Enduring Faith," published in
Why the South Will Survive, writes that
contrary to other Americans, the collective experience of Southerners includes decades of scarcity and poverty rather than of abundance; of guilt rather than innocence; of frustration and defeat rather than of unfailing victory and success. Such a regional experience has made Southerners skeptical with regard to the myths that undergird American nationalism. The Southerners' "historic" experience has given them a better grasp on reality, a heightened suspicion of all utopian schemes, and an antidote to moral complacency. (208)I think this brief look at Ransom and Campbell bears this out. And, it seems to me, this Southern experience, this Southern theology, is a valuable antidote to the smug candy-coated religion so dominant in America in the current age. The warnings of Ransom and Campbell are important words for Southerners and all Americans as we sit complacently with the instruments for world destruction at our fingertips.
Brooks, Cleanth. "The Enduring Faith." Why the South
Will Survive. By Fifteen Southerners. Athens: University of
Georgia Press, 1981.
Gibble, Kenneth. "Living Out the Drama: An Interview with
Will Campbell." The Christian Century 30 May 1984:
Ransom, John Crowe. God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense
of Orthodoxy. 1930. Rpt. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1965.
---. "Reconstructed But Unregenerate." I'll Take
My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. By Twelve
Southerners. 1930. Rpt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962.
Young, Thomas Daniel, and George Core, eds. Selected Letters
of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
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