Visits from grandparents are the joy of many families. For us, it was usually the other way around. After we we bounced from Chicago to Chattanooga to Palm Beach, we lived on the other side of the Palm Beach Country Club from my father’s mother. With my mother’s parents, we usually went to Arkansas to see them. They only came to visit us in Palm Beach once. And it was enough: in a letter my grandmother wrote to a friend in Chicago, she noted the following:
I know when Vernell (my mother) lived in Chicago, and when I would stay several weeks at a time when the boys were Babies, how hungry I would be to be with God(‘s) children in an old time church. And now they live in Palm Beach, Florida, and the same thing, and when folks aren’t spiritual minded they don’t care about the Lord nor his church in this world…
The idea of “the remnant”–that there are just a few of us hanging on to God–was born around the time the Israelites faced their first exile in Babylon with the destruction of the First Temple. It’s one that’s resurfaced many times. Church growth types decry the attitude of “us four and no more” but if you get enough “us fours” you can have quite a movement, and that was the reality of much of Southern Evangelicalism for many years.
What really strikes me about this more than half a century after she wrote it is the contrast to the fawning, sycophantic attitude towards wealth and the people it accumulates to (and the places they live) that is now standard in churches. It didn’t matter that Palm Beach was and is one of the wealthiest communities in the United States; a proper Christian church was absent, thus it wasn’t a good place. That reflects the attitude that eternity is what really matters. It’s tempting to criticise (as N.T. Wright is wont to do) that it’s escapist and reduces the relevance of Christianity in this world. But that’s not really true either: the legacy of “escapist” Southern Evangelicals is alive and well in ways that have been obscured by political shifts, but need to be re-examined.
The main thing Southern Evangelicals are remembered for is being atrocious racists. And there’s no doubt about that. But buried in that web is a class element, too. Descendants of a class-stratified British society, Americans in general like to think that they’ve gotten beyond class. But it’s easier said than done, especially in the South. Black people posed a perpetual economic threat for a people whose capacity for efficient work was fitful at best. That’s why they worked so hard to keep them down.
But the same people who despised those below them resented those above them as well. After Reconstruction they sized control of state governments from those who had led them in the Lost Cause, instituting some of the rawest populism this Republic has seen before or since. They tightly regulated activities that fuelled those they displaced, such as alcohol consumption. (They also tightly regulated utilities, too.) And the class-stratified nature of Southern Christianity insured that no one had to see someone from the “other side” of anything on Sunday morning, with their attitude buttressed by Scriptures such as the following:
Let a Brother in humble circumstances be proud of his exalted position, but a rich Brother of his humiliation; For the rich man will pass away ‘like the flower of the grass.’ As the sun rises, and the hot wind blows, ‘the grass withers, its flower fades,’ and all its beauty is gone. So is it with the rich man. In the midst of his pursuits he will come to an untimely end. (James 1:9-11 TCNT)
And they voted Democrat, reliably and Yellow Dog. Their voter participation rates were below their Northern counterparts and and many of those when they elected were corrupt and/or of atrocious personal morals. Today white Evangelicals are criticised for voting for Republicans with similar problems, but I guess it doesn’t matter when they’re Democrats.
But many of them took their populism to Washington and voted accordingly. It’s easy to forget, but they also voted for such things as restrictive banking laws and 70% top marginal income tax rates. People like Carter Glass and Wright Patman ruled the roost; LBJ himself physically bullied the head of the Federal Reserve. Buoyed by this and the egalitarian spirit of a generation that fought World War II together, income equality had its golden age between 1945 and 1975, and it’s gone down ever since.
And that brings us to Elizabeth Warren. As we’ve pointed out before, she’s not much of an Indian, but she’s certainly a Scots-Irish redneck. She’s probably her party’s best heir to the legacy of Glass and Patman (to say nothing of Huey Long.) Her circuitous route to fame through Harvard and Massachusetts is due to the fact that her fellow Scots-Irish have abandoned the Democrat Party. But will her own brand of populism resonate in her own party now, especially since with the sexual revolution they have abandoned Christianity?
In spite of fifty years of growing income inequality, Americans are still in denial about the reality of class inequality. The left has addressed this by obsessing with intersectional identity politics. The result of this that, while a few people have moved up, it’s easier to obscure the regressive nature of the society in virtue-signalling rhetoric. As long as this is true inequality will continue to grow even if the Democrats get rid of their bête noire. (That’s the unheeded lesson of the Obama years.)
Warren’s ancestors harboured a great deal of resentment towards those above them and shaped a great deal of public policy as a consequence of that resentment. That’s what it’s going to take to get the kinds of policies passed the Democratic Socialists want, not the reality-obscuring intersectionality that dominates leftist rhetoric. Whether they’re ready to appeal to a mentality that resents Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey as much as it resents the Kochs remains to be seen. Whether the Democrats are ready to embrace someone like Elizabeth Warren also remains to be seen. At this point I doubt it, but those who would discount a Scots-Irish politician would do well to remember Bill Clinton.
But the Democrats better make up their mind quickly. If they’re gunning for the resentment vote, chances are Donald Trump has beaten them to it, and getting it back won’t be an overnight proposition.