Where Does the South End and Christianity Begin?

Understanding the role of shame/honor culture in the roots of Christian rage.

“What is going on?”

That’s the question that’s pouring into my inbox, into my text messages, and into every one of the (too many) social media apps I use. It’s a question usually accompanied by a news article about a furious Christian leader, a screenshot of a Facebook post by an enraged Christian friend, or an account of a troubling conversation with an angry client or customer. While the insurrection of January 6 caused some Christians to suddenly wake up to the danger of the rage in their ranks, others doubled down. And the fury is leaking out everywhere. 

The answer to that question is obviously complex—almost absurdly complex. I’ve written about many of the near-term motivations, including the corruptions of Christian nationalism, partisanship, and conspiracy theories. But this week, let’s go even deeper. I’ve written at length about the danger of American Evangelicalism becoming too Republican. But I also have come to believe there’s a danger in American Evangelicalism becoming too southern.

Yes, there’s a lot to say about this topic and the reasons that white Evangelicals are such outliers on a number of racial issues, including expressing less concern about racism and police brutality, and a heightened sensitivity to allegedly “woke” arguments about race. Simply put, if American Evangelicalism is disproportionately southern, then it’s more likely to carry the South’s racial baggage into broader American life. That is true, but it’s not my focus today. 

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that’s crucial to understanding race in the South but also transcends race. That “something” is southern shame/honor culture. And I submit that what we’re watching right now in much of our nation’s Christian politics is an explosion not of godly Christian passion, but rather of ancient southern shame/honor rage.

There’s an enormous amount of literature describing shame/honor culture in the South and shame/honor culture generally, but I like this succinct description from David Brooks:

In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Shame/honor cultures are very focused on group reputation and group identity. Again, here’s Brooks:

People are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Brooks was writing about the general growth of shame culture in America, including in left-wing circles on campus. But doesn’t this sound familiar on the right? Have you noticed how much of the GOP, the party of white Evangelicals, is often positively obsessed with grievance, how it marinates in anger at the insults of the “elite” or the “ruling class”?

We experience this reality constantly. It sometimes appears as if the bulk of the conservative media economy is built around finding and highlighting leftist insults, leftist disrespect, and leftist contempt. And yes, it exists, but there is a difference between highlighting a problem and marinating in grievance over the rejection of the left.

This has old, old roots. In his book Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, Kent State professor Gary Ciuba writes that “honor meant that southerners beheld themselves as others beheld them,” and that meant that “their self-worth lived in the look of the other.”

I found that quote in an illuminating essay by Jody Howard, writing in Covenant. Howard amplifies Ciuba’s point:

In the honor-shame culture of the South, allowing a perceived inferior to best or embarrass you was to experience more than personal insult. It was to witness a hole punched in the myth that undergirded antebellum and segregationist society. Maintenance of the myth was paramount: face had to be saved and respect salvaged through the use of violence and intimidation, or else one risked becoming the subject of societal violence in turn, as neighbors sought to reestablish the equilibrium, to save the myth.

This approach represents a dramatic contrast with biblical commands to “turn the other cheek” or to “bless those who persecute.” Instead, the shame/honor imperative is to punch back, hard. Any other approach isn’t just weakness. It risks the well-being of the community.

Make no mistake: The South is better than it was on this score. But the influence remains. For example, in a famous 1996 examination of honor in the South, researchers Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen found that southern male students experienced higher levels of testosterone and cortisol when “bumped into or sworn at in a hallway.” It’s a small data point, but it’s interesting when connected both with history and with contrasting contemporary cultures in North and South.

So, why is all this so relevant to the present day? And what does it have to do with Christianity? Because when we talk about American Evangelicalism in a secularizing world, we’re increasingly talking about southern Evangelicalism. American religious practice is clustering in the South. Though this data is a bit dated (2014), this Gallup map provides a vivid illustration of reality:

Or, look at this 2016 Pew chart showing the percentage of adults by state who are classified as “highly religious.” What do you notice about the top 15?

One of the enduring realities of the Christian Gospel is that it does not conform to any specific human culture. Elements of biblical truth will contradict our cultures and call on us to transcend the culturally implanted desires and inclinations of our hearts.

However, one of the enduring temptations of the human heart is to conform the Christian Gospel to our cultural inclinations, to find a way for the desires and inclinations of our hearts to find biblical sanction and rationalization. 

In the South, this conflict between Gospel truth and human rebellion is reflected in the debate as to whether much of the South is merely “Christ-haunted” as opposed to “Christ-transformed.” There is no question that the South is religious—often very religious. But how much has that religion changed human hearts? As Howard notes, when the church in the South has failed, it failed because it was “never sufficiently counter-cultural.”

Now, let’s make this more concrete by referring to recent American Christian outbursts, especially the otherwise-inexplicable outbursts by two of American Evangelicalism’s most prominent voices: evangelist Franklin Graham and Christian financial-advice guru Dave Ramsey. In two separate instances last week, when they or their tribe was challenged, they responded exactly the way southerners respond. They punched back, hard. 

Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, has done an immense amount of good through his organization, Samaritan’s Purse. He and his legion of Christian employees and volunteers have sacrificially served the sickest and most vulnerable members of society. But when it comes to politics, Graham’s voice is radically angry and viciously tribal. Look, for example, at his incredible response to the decision of ten Republicans to vote for impeachment:

The comparison is absurd. Christians who voted their conscience to impeach a man who tried to steal an election and helped incite a violent insurrectionary attack on the Capitol are like those who betrayed Jesus Christ? That’s not a Christian response to politics. It’s a very southern shame/honor response from the very southern Franklin Graham. You have come against us. We will come against you.

How about Dave Ramsey? On January 15, the Religion News Service published a long, reported piece by Bob Smietana that described working conditions at Ramsey Solutions, Ramsey’s large and very successful for-profit enterprise. To be clear, Ramsey, like Graham, has done an immense amount of good for many, many Americans. When I was in Iraq, my wife followed his radio show, read his book, and followed his advice. After she took extra jobs to help pay off our debt, she even tried to call in for the famous “debt-free scream.”

But after Smietana detailed a troublesome response to COVID-19 and potentially unlawful employment practices at Ramsey’s company, the corporate response was—well, you have to read it to believe it. Here’s the beginning, full of vicious sarcasm:

Thanks for reaching out. We want to confirm for you that you are right, we are horrible evil people. We exist to simply bring harm to our team, take advantage of our customers, and spread COVID. And YOU figured it all out, wow. Who would have guessed that an unemployed guy, oh I am sorry, a “freelance reporter” would be the one to show us how horrible we are so we can change and to let the world know of our evil intent, secrets, and complete disregard for decency…..but YOU did it, you with all your top notch investigative skills have been able to weave together a series of half-truths to expose our evil ways. You are truly amazing.

Even worse, the corporation blind-copied a number of Ramsey allies on the letter and then called for those allies to confront Smietana personally. Is that a Christian response, or a shame/honor response from the very southern Dave Ramsey? It’s shame/honor to the core. You have come against us. We will come against you.

Putting aside the celebrities, it’s still so very hard to miss the combination of group grievance and Christian presence on January 6. In addition to the Christian symbolism I detailed last week, troubling individual accounts are rolling in. For example, read this astonishing story, from the Montgomery Advertiser:

Investigators say an Alabama man joined the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol last week in order to "plead the blood of Jesus."

More:

“We just wanted to get inside the building," the [government] affidavit quotes Black saying. "I wanted to get inside the building so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it. That was my goal.”

Black said he carried a knife with him but "wasn't planning on pulling it." 

I’d also urge you to read about Doug Sweet, from Gwynn’s Island, Virginia. A veteran of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, he described praying on the threshold of entering the Capitol on January 6:

He says he hesitated. He says he felt the need to go inside to share his views with Congress but wanted to consult God first. He prayed aloud: “Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward.

“I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’”

The examples just keep coming and coming:

Online and in the streets, this intense, personalized anger and expression of group grievance are an increasingly prevalent form of Evangelical Christian expression. It’s so very important to understand that this is not new for the South. What is new, however, is the increasing dominance of Southern demographics and Southern culture within the whole of American Evangelicalism. It’s the population center. It’s the power center. And now it’s the cultural center. 

But there’s hope for change. There is always Gospel hope. As I noted above, the South and the southern church have already changed considerably since the days of slavery and Jim Crow. But we must respond against an obvious angry and violent retreat to the patterns of the past. 

That means targeting the Gospel message specifically to the challenge of the culture. My good friend Curtis Chang, a writer, teacher, and senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary, reminded me in a text conversation that scripture directly addresses the shame/honor dynamic:

Ancient (and modern) Middle Eastern culture that is the Biblical context, is thoroughly shame-based. But traditional Western (as in European) readings of Scripture are more guilt-based, and have tended to … impose their guilt-based worldview on Scripture. This is why the penal substitution metaphor for the Cross (we’re guilty and deserving of punishment, Jesus takes on our guilt) has so dominated Western theology. Much of the movement of theologians of color, especially from Asian-Americans, has been to recover that original shame-based context and message. So, the Gospel is not just “We’re guilty; Jesus removes our guilt” but “We feel shame—and we have no way to deal with it effectively—but Jesus absorbs our shame.”

So, what do we do? What is the Christian response? It’s to realize (in Curtis’s words) that “the promise of the Gospel is that if we ‘stand down’ from our culture’s broken attempts to restore our own honor, then in Jesus we are ‘raised to glory.’” “Glory,” he says, “is not some mystical, ethereal, after-life reality. It is the honor of bearing God’s true image: the Jesus who refused to defend himself, who absorbed the shame, and who trusted his Father God to defend and justify him.”

Those are powerful, countercultural words. They don’t relieve us from the biblical obligation to “act justly,” to humbly and faithfully seek justice in the public square. They do, however, rebuke the worldly urge to demand respect. They do rebuke a culture of grievance. And they place our hope outside and beyond the old southern urge to fight harder and with more fury against the opponents all too many Christians have grown to hate. 

One more thing …

If you’re interested in diving even deeper into the subject, this Bible Project Podcast contains a fascinating discussion of the conflict between the Christian Gospel and the shame/honor culture of the Roman Empire.

One last thing …

It’s been a dark week. It’s been a dark month. Let’s end with a song of hope and faith from my friends at We the Kingdom: