Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Why is the South so religious?

posted by Rod Dreher

Randall Stephens, editor of the Journal of Southern Religion, says it has a lot to do with the South’s cultural homogeneity for most of its history.
I suspect too that the fact that the South remained agrarian (and comparatively poorer) longer than the North has something to do with it.
The way you answer this question will in part depend on whether or not you think religion is good or bad. If the former, you may find virtue in Southerners accounting for their residual religiosity; if the latter, you’ll chalk it up to character defects (e.g., “poor, uneducated and easy to command.”) Can we please try to avoid value judgments about religion, or Southerners, as we try to figure out what cultural and sociological factors have made Southerners on balance more open to religious identification than other Americans? (Note that this doesn’t mean that they’re more moral, only that they more readily identify with religion).



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Liam617

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:10 pm


Is the South more religious, or is it more publicly religious?



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rr

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:17 pm


I wonder at times if the South really is more religious than the rest of the nation. Sure, religiosity is more public in the South. However, a great deal of what passes for Christianity is cultural Christianity, which isn’t the same as a strong faith in Christ.
I live in a small town in the Deep South. Over 50% of people who live in my county describe themselves as Baptists, with most of the rest Pentecostals, non-denominationals (read: Baptists or Penecostals who just don’t like labels), Methodists and Presbyterians. References to Christianity are all over the place in my town, as are churches. Yet studies have shown that church attendance is just under 20%, less than the national average. The town isn’t a den of wickedness, but it also has its fair share of problems with drug use, family disfunction and so forth.
So is the South really more religious? Or is the Bible Belt more cultural than anything else?
rr



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Franklin Jennings

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:27 pm


Screw religious, when was the South even homogeneous?



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forestwalker

posted January 29, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Ron Hill

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm


Don’t forget, the South is the only section of the U.S. to ever be invaded. Our civilization, job base, and state governments were destroyed by the yankee invaders. Religion was the only thing we had left in common as a people. We didn’t even get our state governments back until 1877. Hence, our faith was the only thing not taken from us.



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Andy

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:08 pm


The pre-Civil-War south was basically a feudal society. Feudalism tends to be religious: if I am going to accept and identify with my position in a hierarchical society, it helps if I see the universe itself as possessing a hierarchical order.
Capitalism, on the other hand, is implicitly athiest. If I am going to view the world as a collection of resources waiting to be exploited, it helps to NOT see it as possessing a sacred order.
The Civil War was a long time ago, but the south continued to experience capitalism as an alien intrusion until quite recently.
That’s my theory, anyway…



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A Texan

posted January 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm


@Ron Hill
You mean that the South’s faith was the only thing its leaders did not choose to sacrifice in the name of treason and rebellion.
This is not an attack on Southern culture or Southerner today; I just think that saying all those other things “were taken” from the South obfuscates the reason the South lost them.



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MargaretE

posted January 29, 2010 at 6:06 pm


I live in the South, and I honestly believe “religion” is just a cultural thing for lots of people here… just part of being a “traditional” American. In the South, going to church is still very much a part of being a “good citizen,” much like joining the Rotary club, serving on the PTA, giving to charity, etc. My instinct tells me that plenty of people who attend my church regularly aren’t real “believers,” per se. Not in the “whole Magilla” as Rod called it. But what makes these “unbelievers” different from “unbelievers” in other parts of the country is that they still believe in “western civilization” as a mostly GOOD thing… and, in turn, they believe the values espoused by Christianity are good for society. They feel an obligation to uphold those values and raise their children with them. Having said all that, there are plenty of real believers here, too, but I’d guess no more so than anywhere else.



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DeeAnn

posted January 29, 2010 at 6:07 pm


A Texas – have you lived anywhere but Texas in the south? I was born and raised in the deep south, (and spent the last 15 years in Texas)and I still remember distinctly my 8th grade american history class where my teacher was talking about Sherman marching through Georgia. It was very personal to her and Sherman was NOT the hero. For anyone whose home and life was destroyed by the Yankees, the feelings of hatred were passed down and those feelings remain. For many southerners, these things WERE taken from them. That’s the southern perspective, at least for many in the generation just before me and older.
As to the topic at hand, I think the communities are very close-knit in the south and you had a lot of us against them thinking in regards to race, so it tended to bond people more. Churches were and still are very segregated, even though most other institutions have become more diverse. I don’t think it stays segregated for the most part because people are excluding others as much as people going where they feel most comfortable. But that’s the heritage.



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Cindy Merrill

posted January 29, 2010 at 6:11 pm


I think Southerners are more social/people oriented compared to the North, I was raised in Bangor Maine: I didn’t find out the first names of our next door neighbors until I was in my late 20′s.
Soon after moving to Richmond Kentucky, I joined a Babtist Church. I now have an extended family of 62 members!



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Jon

posted January 29, 2010 at 6:50 pm


Re: We didn’t even get our state governments back until 1877.
If you were in South Carolina, yes. But in Georgia the date is 1871, and in Tennessee, 1865.
Also, what religion did the South have in common? The tidewater grandees tended to be Episcopalian. The Cajuns and Creoles, Catholic. The upland Scot-Irish Presbyterian. And everywhere else there were Baptists and Methodists.



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Anna

posted January 29, 2010 at 7:06 pm


Agree with Andy. And to add: The South was about 95% illiterate until the 1820′s. Noah Webster was appalled at the condition of even rich planters who signed with an ‘X’, spurring him on in the publication of the his Speller. The people considered this normal and reveled in revelry instead of books in Charleston. The wealthy sent their sons Northward for education.



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Jim

posted January 29, 2010 at 7:18 pm


The wealthy sent their sons Northward for education.
They still do.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 29, 2010 at 7:38 pm


Don’t forget, the South is the only section of the U.S. to ever be invaded.
Apparently the War of 1812 never happened.



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hattio

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:10 pm


Ron Hill says;
Don’t forget, the South is the only section of the U.S. to ever be invaded.
What’s Alaska, chopped liver. It’s true that Alaska was a US territory, not a state at the time of WWII. But if that’s your claim, either the Southern States were states, in which case the US army wasn’t invading, they were putting down a rebellion, or they weren’t states, in which case they, like Alaska, have suffered an invasion. Not to totally derail the thread, but the Southern sense of exceptionalism is often not based in fact.
As to the topic of the post, I also agree that it is more cultural religion than heartfelt religion. I also think the tendency of Southern families to stay in an area helps; if all your extended family can see whether you are a good boy/girl who goes to church, you tend to go more.



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stop it

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:26 pm


Jumping on Ron Hill here is silly. The South is the only place in the US invaded, conquered, and occupied for an extended period. Is that better for the nit-pickers?



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hattio

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm


stop it,
But, it wasn’t the only place invaded conquered and occupied for an extended period. I think the Japanese were on Attu and Kiska for about a year and a half. I would consider that an extended period. Of course, all of the Southwest can also make the same claim (and go further that they are still being occupied by the American invader). In short, this is what gets me about the whole claim of Southern Exceptionalism. It just ignores counter-vailing evidence.



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stop it

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:47 pm


And Blacks weren’t the only slaves in America. Only a contrarian fool, though–or someone with bad motive–would claim that fact as counter-vailing evidence against Black Exceptionalism. Back to the topic at hand…



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Peter

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:49 pm


Wouldn’t Puerto Rico come under this general category as well.



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Jillian

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:54 pm


Don’t forget, the South is the only section of the U.S. to ever be invaded. Our civilization, job base, and state governments were destroyed by the Yankee invaders. Religion was the only thing we had left in common as a people. We didn’t even get our state governments back until 1877. Hence, our faith was the only thing not taken from us.
‘Almighty God’ got edited into the Confederacy’s rewriting of the Constitution, aka the Confederate Constitution, in 1861. The cultural difference predates the Civil War.
http://www.filibustercartoons.com/CSA.htm
I think there’s a more plausible explanation. Deities and their requirements justified the rigid, tiered, social pyramids and hierarchies of Ancient World societies. The Confederacy was a attempt to establish a hierarchical agrarian society rather like that of the Roman Empire and make it permanent. To do so required supernatural justifications to trump notions of equality and fairness, even if very limited in scope, that were slowly becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.
(Btw, funny how “getting back” state governments meant that black Southerners were re-excluded from share in them.)
It was very personal to her and Sherman was NOT the hero. For anyone whose home and life was destroyed by the Yankees, the feelings of hatred were passed down and those feelings remain. For many southerners, these things WERE taken from them.
Sherman’s recorded view was that the permeating defect in Southern white values is: covetousness. He found white Southerners to be infuriatingly unregenerate and barbarically callous, even about each other and even when defeated, until and unless their property was at risk.
There is a long letter or two he wrote to iirc Grant (it may have been Lincoln or Halleck) from Georgia laying out this view and that the one way to force the South to confront and suffer this sinful covetousness acutely was to demonstratively take away or destroy their property on a large scale. Sherman gives this as the explicit justification of what became the March To The Sea. It had the effect on white Southerners he predicted- utter outrage and (finally) a sense that their war could come at painful cost to them all.



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tlp

posted January 29, 2010 at 8:58 pm


I’m a Northerner who has lived in the South for 4 years. Within 5 minutes of the moving truck pulling up to our house, the neighbor said to me, not “Hello, my name is…” but “What church do you go to?” Having been the outsider now for 4 years, I understand the question not to be a religious one but one meant to identify you socially, economically, politically, and ethnically. Jesus is the front man for the real questions.



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Andrea

posted January 29, 2010 at 9:16 pm


I believe North Dakota has the highest percentage of religious people in the nation and the most churches per capita. Church attendance or nominal affiliation is pretty much taken for granted. The largest number are Lutherans, the rest are Catholics, and the rest of what’s left are mainly other Protestants. Very few Jews or Muslims or the like here. N.D. is still a very rural state and largely lower income, which probably fits into your theory about the south. It’s also quite homogenous, being about 93 percent whites of a Scandinavian or German background with recent immigrant ancestors. The style of the religiosity is more low key than in your southern Baptist churches, but there’s still a high degree of it. Churches are one of the greatest sources for socialization and community life in a small town, which also has a lot to do with church attendance.



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tscott

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:23 am


It’s interesting that most bloggers here see the southern religious culture as fronting for something else(covetous,hierarchical, backward).
Taken in a broader sense, it’s sad that these attributes can be applied to Christian cultures. It’s sadder still that they stick.



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low-tech cyclist

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:40 am


I think a good place to start to understand the differences between the South and the rest of the country would be Joyce Appleby’s excellent book, “Inheriting the Revolution: The First Full Generation of Americans.”
She details how, as our forebears expanded into the Midwest, they started newspapers and founded colleges everywhere they went. There was a spirit of inventiveness, questioning, and desire for learning that permeated the first steps of the westward expansion.
But she points out that this was pretty much an extension of what was already true in the Northeast: there were already an abundance of colleges and newspapers there, and more were forming. The expansion into the Midwest was pretty much a Northern thing.
Meanwhile, in the South: very few colleges, very few newspapers, many issues (slavery most notably, but others as well) simply off limits for discussion. Very little inventiveness, when the main engine of the region’s economy was that of crops grown by slaves. The South was effectively an aristocracy of large slaveholders, and it was run in a manner to discourage change.
Where I’m going with this is, I hope, obvious: a lot of questions lead one away from religion. So a world in which questioning is discouraged (i.e. the South through the end of Jim Crow, and in some places, right up to the present day) would leave religion more entrenched than a world in which it was encouraged (i.e. the rest of the country).
That’s resulted in a more religious South, but I don’t think the result is anything that would make the baby Jesus smile. And even less so the grown-up one: it’s hard to see the Christianism dominant in the South as something that has much of a connection with the Jesus of the Gospels. It’s a faith that’s essentially set up not to question, for that’s what the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is: it’s a doctrine of nonquestioning.
And the result is a ‘faith’ that’s designed to reinforce the prejudices of the Southern ruling class. It’s far more militaristic than the rest of America (hardly what you’d expect of followers of Jesus), strongly against taxation of the rich (it’s hard to see Jesus even caring about that) and deeply opposed to governmental help to the poor because what’s important, apparently, is not that the poor be helped, but that good Christians do the helping, even if the help from good Christians falls far short of the need. (Please, folks, don’t embarrass yourselves and your Lord by claiming that’s how He would feel.)
Sure, far more Southerners are nominally Christians, but Southern Christianity seems to have produced the sort of Christians that give anyone with a clue about the Gospels a great deal of reason to be skeptical about Christianity. It takes a great deal of groupthink to perpetuate that sort of faith. But that’s what Southern culture has been designed to produce.



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Julien Peter Benney

posted January 30, 2010 at 8:40 am


The question of why the American South is so religious has long been of great interest to me. I cannot, Rod, believe it relates to cultural homogeniety. Such cultures as Scandinavia and in the US the Pacific Northwest, are the least religious in the world and are as culturally homogenous as (or more so than) the South itself.
Those who attribute it to the South;s longer period of agrarianism are right – very much so. However, I do not see it as likely that agrarianism alone can cause the South’s religiosity: there must be something else at work. Uneducated peasants in Europe and East Asia identified themselves with Communism as soon as that option was presented to them by educated people. There thus has to be another reason that would prevent Southern peasants from identifying with Communism. The answer I suspect is the South’s abundant land supply from (relatively) flat terrain and the fact that its climate is hot enough that crops are not restricted to single-season crops of too low a value for farm incomes to be fully adequate (as they are in secular Europe). Another case like this can be seen with New Zealand, which is as secular as Europe even though it has economic farming. Though this may relate to its timber-based economy (a forestry-based economy being as I see it the cause of the militant secularism and social progressivism of Scandinavia and the Pacific Northwest), it also I think relates to the low-value character of the crops one can grow in New Zealand’s cool climate.
The is also the fact that the South was settled by relatively religious people – unlike Australia which for being settled by highly secular groups is much less religious than experimental models correlating religion with size of government suggests it should be, especially as its hot climate puts Australia in the same position as the South or Southwest.



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Liam

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:07 am


For a fascinating if somewhat uneven read on how the Virginia dynasty of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – who had championed secular education and separation of church and state (for example, the University of Virginia’s charter was held up for decades by fear by evangelicals of secular education) – had a failure of nerve in the 1820s and ended up deferring to the Faustian bargain between aristocrats and populists to maintain slavery, read Susan Dunn’s “Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia”.
The calcification of social structure did much to reinforce the role of social institutions like churches as the primary vehicles for expressing identity and community.



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Jon

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:55 am


Re: the Virginia dynasty of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe … had a failure of nerve in the 1820s and ended up deferring to the Faustian bargain between aristocrats and populists to maintain slavery
The Founding Fathers, being good 18th century optimists, expected slavery to wither away. This was entirely an ungrounded hope. Slavery was fast withering away in the North before their eyes. What they could not foresee was the rise of King Cotton and the huge profits to be made in cotton-based agriculture in concert with the newly industrialized textile industry in Britain and New England. Nor did they ever take into account the toxin of racism in human nature, including in themselves. The North had an easy time eliminating slavery because there were few Black people in the North and the handful of Black slaves could be freed without raising impossible questions about the racial mix of society. In the South the prospect of Blacks, 40% of the whole population, competing against whites for jobs, wives, and votes scared silly even decent people who knew that slavery was wrong.



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Quiddity

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:57 am


I’d chalk it up to prosperity and education. Perhaps also to immigration. The South had a lot less of it in the early 20th century. I suspect that immigrants are less inclined to stick with their religion. After all, by coming to the U.S. they have already broken with their local culture.
I’m reminded of a map of the U.S. that showed the density of N-th generation Americans. Almost all of the 4th and 5th generation were clustered in the South – especially the Appalachian region.



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Jon

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:20 am


Rwe: Uneducated peasants in Europe and East Asia identified themselves with Communism as soon as that option was presented to them by educated people.
I find this statement quite suspect. I won’t address China: I don’t know much about Manchu Chinese peasantry. But in Russia at least the main support for Communism lay with a frustrated urban bourgeois (the main pattern in revolutions). Things in Russia in 1918 were seriously off the rails and I don’t doubt that the peasantry was willing enough to use the Revolution to grab whatever they could to further their own survival, in much the same way that French peasants in 1789 joyfully looted local chateaux. But the Russian peasantry was quite religious, if only in an illiterate superstition-prone way, and they resisted collectivism for a long while. Hence the Holodomor. It took the Nazis one-upping the Mongols for barbarism and slaughter, and Stalin dragging the Orthodox Church out of the gulag as an icon of Holy Mother Russia, to finally reconcile the country to communism.



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Your Name

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:45 am


I believe North Dakota has the highest percentage of religious people in the nation and the most churches per capita. Church attendance or nominal affiliation is pretty much taken for granted. The largest number are Lutherans, the rest are Catholics, and the rest of what’s left are mainly other Protestants. Very few Jews or Muslims or the like here.
Oddly enough though, the first purpose-built mosque in the US was constructed in Ross, ND in the 1920s



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Andrea

posted January 30, 2010 at 12:37 pm


Your Name, I have a book somewhere on the history of Muslims in N.D. There WAS a small group of immigrants from the Middle East, often around Syria or Lebanon, who came to N.D. and they were often tradesmen. I went to school with a descendant of one of those immigrants whose family owned the local clothing store. They were still Muslim. Several of the Syrians or Lebanese married into American Indian families or married other immigrants from German or Scandinavian or other families. In isolated small towns without mosques or many, if any, other Muslim families, they usually tended to start going to the local Christian churches and pretty much assimilated. There are some people in the state with Middle Eastern names, but they’re usually Christians these days. Other people moved out of the state to bigger cities. There were also some Jews among the early settlers but a lot of the time they moved out of state, to areas with other Jews. There are more Jews in the eastern part of the state in Grand Forks and Fargo, than there are in the west. Those that are here tend to have come here more recently, with the Air Force or to work at the college or the local hospital. The mosque in Ross is no longer in use. I would guess you need a critical mass of a group to maintain religious faith from one generation to the next in a rural area.



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Ed

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:28 pm


If New England were the size of the South, it would probably be more religious. As it is, it’s small enough so that you couldn’t get very far away from Boston and other cities, so back country religion died out and was replaced by urban secularism.
If the South had experienced waves of non-Protestant immigration a century ago, it would also have become less religious — certainly less evangelical — than it is.



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Liam

posted January 30, 2010 at 5:47 pm


New England experienced for several generations the joys of an intensely religious public culture. It reconsidered the wisdom of it about 300 years ago, had a passionate affair with revivalism, and has been in recovery for the past 200 years.



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Irenaeus

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:42 pm


Building on what MargaretE said above, I’d like to suggest something Walker Percy mused on from time to time: the South really wasn’t Christian, deep down, but Roman, Stoic, with the sorts of Roman values that make loyalty to the patria and the gods an ideal. Thus, the God n’ Country stuff we see that drives certain thoughtful Christians nuts makes sense: its the res publica in a Christian key.



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MargaretE

posted February 1, 2010 at 11:13 am


Iranaeus, that seems like very a good analysis to me. That Walker Percy was a pretty smart fellow…



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rr

posted February 1, 2010 at 1:53 pm


quote: “I think there’s a more plausible explanation. Deities and their requirements justified the rigid, tiered, social pyramids and hierarchies of Ancient World societies. The Confederacy was a attempt to establish a hierarchical agrarian society rather like that of the Roman Empire and make it permanent.”
The problem with this explanation was that the Roman Empire had some rather large cities. In addition, before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, it was largely an urban phenomenon which did run against established hierarchies. After all, the name “pagan” comes from the Latin “paganus” or “country dweller.” In other words, you are wrong about the Roman Empire, religion and the South. But hey, at least you are consistent in being wrong about everything.
rr



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Andy

posted February 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm


I believe the higher rate of Christianity has to do with identity, particularly amongst a group of people who, rightly or wrongly, believe they have been corporately wronged by outsiders. I’ve lived in the deep or border south for all but a few years of my life. To say you are not Christian in the South would be similarly received as if you said Northern girls are prettier than Southern ones, or Big 10 football is better than SEC football. You are simply playing into atheistic Yankee hands. I think you can look to other countries that are seemingly much more religious than their neighbors for comparison, most notably Poland and Ireland. I believe both would say their religious affiliation is almost as much due to their sense of national identity as it was their beliefs.
Interestingly, I’ve read that in the 18th century the South was far and away the least observant section of the country. I’m not sure why the North and South flip-flopped in terms of how observant they were, but my quick guess would be the large amount of wealth acquired in the North led to a decrease in how devout the general population was. That guess is probably grossly oversimplified, though.



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Magoo

posted May 5, 2012 at 11:47 am


I have lived in the south 6 years. I am a 4th generation Californian. I have experienced more dishonesty here in the deep south than anywhere else and I have lived in several places including the Middle East.Even more distressing is that people accept it. They treat their animals badly too. It’s ok to steal or cheat , but don’t ever cuss. I am 75 years old so I have been around the block a few times.They don’t care about education either, but “Are you a Christion?” is a common question.



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GBA

posted May 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm


Wow, I don’t know why the South is more religious (or more specifically Baptist) but it might have something to do with the incredible bigotry toward them on the part of Yankees over the past 200 years as expressed in the overwhelming number of comments on this subject.



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