The struggle for the souls of small towns
After I read the story yesterday about TWIRP day getting banned because of misplaced homophobia, I read this remarkable story about a journalist named Paul Cowan who spent much of his career investigating small town culture flare-ups like that one. Cowan was one of the first to define the culture wars as a product not of moral vs. immoral, which is still the dominant interpretation, but as a product of straight up tribal warfare, an interpretation that seems to fit the facts much, much better.
Of course, each American tribe has a different set of cultural traits, commonly called "values". And the fundamentalist tribe, well, one of their traits is that they are warlike and eliminationist. Even Cowan, who sympathized with them, had this extremely astute comment:
"I would like to think there is room for fundamentalists in my America. But I'm not sure there is room for me in theirs."
Bingo. If those who don't share the same culture as the fundamentalists want to survive, we are going to have to understand this mindset. They don't think that their culture can survive by cooperating with other cultures.
Not at all to say that liberals are innocent of trying to shove their culture on other people--they are, as this article will attest. But the thing is, because of the internal structure of each American tribe's way of life, some are easier to threaten than others. And Christian fundamentalist beliefs are delicate, which makes those who wish to preserve their culture very, very paranoid.
The other contributing factor to the fundamentalist's paranoid belief that others are out to destroy their way of life is projection. Built into the Christian belief system is the idea that Christians have a duty to recruit, which they call "witnessing". Because they feel that they have a right and a duty to pilfer members of other American tribes to grow their own ranks, they naturally feel that the rest of us will be trying to swipe some back. You see this paranoia most strongly with the belief that homosexuals "recruit". Because the Christian fundies are constantly pestering gays to become Christians, they assume that the gays must be doing the same in reverse.
In small towns, these lurking conflicts come to a head fairly easily, because in small towns everyone, regardless of cultural differences, has to interact and cooperate with everyone else in order to have a town at all. The conflicts have a certain predictability to them, especially considering that everyone in the town has a secular life, and a good number, if not the majority, have a church life that they would probably describe as their primary life. And the fundies are afraid that entering secular spaces to interact with people not like themselves is going to mean that they lose members.
Some of their fears are reasonable enough. It's safe to assume that teaching a kid the basics of science is going to make that kid suspicious of the literal truth of scientifically impossible Biblical stories, for instance. But it is not reasonable to assume that boys become gay because they went to TWIRP day at school. The common factor that these two situations have in common is, well, the public school. In case it's passed anyone's notice, the public schools of small towns is where the bloodiest battles of the culture war are being fought.
I think most people write this off by figuring, well, it's people's kids and of course they're touchy about that. And in a sense, this is correct. But I think that way, way more is going on. Public schools in small towns, more than the courthouse, more than the parks, more than the libraries, more than anything, are the center of all life and activity in that small town. Yes, even more than the church.
And to put it not-so-nicely, the church gets jealous. Well, at least the fundamentalist churches, which position themselves as the only legitimate center for a community. That's why Jesus and God has to be part of everything--the cross on the neck, the pictures on the wall, the fish on the car, etc. But the church is not the center of your average small town, because even in small towns half the people don't even go to church.
No, the school is the center of town, and if the fundies want to be a part of the larger community, they have to respect the school and its secular nature. And that offends their belief that the church is the center of everything. The primary way of getting the larger community to kow-tow to them as payback for having to kow-tow a little themselves to participate is to constantly force the center of the town--the public schools--to bend itself out of shape conforming to the religious right's standards. Thus, the abstinence-only, teaching Genesis in science class, book banning, and attacking non-Jesus-centered school activities for flimsy reasons, like this TWIRP day nonsense.
In my high school, they took Greek mythology out of the curriculum, because admitting that people in the past had diverse religious beliefs that have died out was somehow a threat to Christianity. Now, we all know this is bullshit. The fundies' kids are going to learn that different people have different beliefs one way or another. It was about forcing the school district and the larger community to defer to their religious beliefs. After a couple of years of not having it in the curriculum, it was quietly reintroduced and no one minded and no one renounced Christ. It wasn't really about Jesus at all--it was just about creating a fight so that there was a victory to gloat over.