What if the South really were a different country?

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Cracker Barrel restaurant in San Antonio, Tex.

Photo courtesy of Billy Hathorn, via Wikimedia Commons

Cracker Barrel restaurant in San Antonio, Tex.

Cracker Barrel restaurant in San Antonio, Tex.

Cracker Barrel restaurant in San Antonio, Tex.

What if the South really were a different country?

Think about it. What if Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress had decided that the Constitution actually permits states to secede? What if, therefore, there had been no Civil War? What if the South had become a permanent country on the southern border of the United States? How would it have developed? What would its political culture have been?

It was the Cracker Barrel restaurant that sent me around this particular bend. Besides offering some awfully good meat loaf and chicken, Cracker Barrel markets small-town and country southern culture. And it does it well enough that small town and country southern people really like to eat there.

So there I was recently at a Cracker Barrel in north Georgia, listening to old Gospel hymns on the loudspeaker while thumbing through Andy Griffith videos and enjoying some really thick local accents. And that was when I thought, you know, the South really is a different country. You wouldn’t have this experience in, say, Boston, or Seattle.

This was not the judgment of some Yankee tourist making a rare trip down South, but instead someone who became a Southern Baptist as a teenager, married into a southern family, and has spent most of his adult life in the South.

So this is a considered judgment. The South is just different. It is religiously different. It is culturally different. It is politically different. And if it had its druthers the South would be different in many of its policies as well. (Hold on a second while I get me some more biscuit. Thanks.)

I think my Cracker Barrel Revelation opens a window on much that is vexatious and confusing about contemporary US politics. The Christian Right makes sense. Post-1960s Republicanism makes sense. Judge Roy Moore makes sense. The Tea Party makes sense. Mike Huckabee writing a book called God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy makes sense. Even Kim Davis makes sense!

If the South were its own country, its church/state arrangements would be much different from what has developed in the US. A majority of southerners would be happy with the (un)official establishment of evangelical Protestant faith in the public square. The Ten Commandments would be posted in any courthouse where the folks wanted them. The preacher would lead prayers at the Friday night football game at the public high school. The principal would offer the Lord’s Prayer to start the school day. (Basically, all the stuff that happens now, until the ACLU sues.)

If the South were its own country, many conservative Christian values would remain enshrined in law. Abortion would be banned or tightly restricted. Sex education would be abstinence-only. Gay marriage would be illegal. Kim Davis would do her job without any conscience problems.

If the South were its own country, politicians like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry would run for president and have a real chance to win. After all, each held state-wide office in a southern state.

If the South were its own country, no one really knows what would have happened with regard to slavery and race. The question remains so explosive as to be almost beyond discussion. Certainly that great evil, slavery, would have survived far longer. Racism would not magically have gone away. If the issue had not gotten mixed up with southern resentment of the US government or northerners, that might have changed the later course of events. Who knows.

My overall point: if the South were its own country, its political culture would probably look an awful lot like today’s southern Republicanism — minus the resentment of the United States government and the very different culture it often represents. There would be greater cultural cohesion in both South and North. The countries would be very different. But maybe each would be governable.

Now back to our regularly scheduled culture wars.

  • Joni Hannigan

    I am always confused, surprised, marginally offended, and then amused by such musings. I grew up in California – Catholic – and then invited Christ into my life in the seventh or eighth grade through the witness of Church of the Brethren folk. When I began high school we moved to Arizona and then I moved back to California before joining the Navy. My Cuban-American family was hugely conservative evangelical. Most, if not all of the values you name, are ones to which I still ascribe. My family has all become Southern Baptist. We have lived all over the place. We enjoy Cracker Barrel and its Southern food and charm, but people and food from nearly every continent. Your article reminded me of a very unhealthy characterization that occurred the last year I taught high school (2002). A student wrote these words on a chalkboard in my journalism classroom south of Atlanta: “Go home Yankee.” I chuckled and then, I just stared. For real, I thought. What are the teachers here teaching?

  • Mark Rich

    “… no one really knows what would have happened in regard to slavery and race”??? Just think about that statement, Dr. G. If you know the south so well, you should know the answer to that statement.

  • Junebug

    Imagining…. it would be an all white S. Baptist country with a lot of poor, sick folk. But the rest of America wouldn’t have to support their poor or do restoration work after natural disasters. America would be more unified and in better financial shape.

  • Larry

    This article is silly in so many ways. Somebody has been dipping into Harry Turtledove’s alternative history series. 🙂

    Where the author sees a North/South split politically, religiously, culturally, it is really a Rural/Urban split.

    There are plenty of “Red” northern and western states. There are significant areas of the North which are as reactionary as the author’s description of the South. Urban centers of most “Red” states tend to skew socially liberal.

    Scott Walker, Mike Pence, Rick Santorum are all theocratically-minded conservatives and all “Northerners” as is their political base, rural voters.

  • Jack

    Aside from demonstrating once again an inability to make factual statements without being excessively opinionated, Larry does make a good point. The cultural divide between rural and urban is a part of it.

    But what’s missing is mention of the suburbs and the exurbs, where you find both traditionalists and Larryesque lefty people living side by side.

  • Larry

    Typical unnecessary poo flinging from Jack.

    Suburbs and exurbs as a whole run in either direction politically/culturally/religiously depending on the ethnic makeup of the community and its economic class. So they don’t really count as a distinct unit when figuring in the cultural/political divide of Urban/Rural. Also the idea that suburb automatically equals middle class community is largely obsolete in many parts of the country.

  • Jack

    Well, I think we’re both missing something that Gushee has missed as well — the social conservatism of a critical mass of at least one slice of urban America — black Americans.

    Obviously, it’s a mistake to assume that to be socially conservative automatically is to be white, rural, and Republican.

  • Larry

    Good luck with that. All I have to say is wait until you see how Republicans actually vote in the primaries. 🙂

  • Debbo

    I like to think about what the North would be like. I’ve never been to the south, but I’ve lived in or extensively visited all the Northern tier states as far east as Ohio and every state west of the Mississippi River except Texas and Nevada.

    First, I think/hope that many far right righties would move to the South because it suits them better and they’re more comfortable there. And the liberals move north.

    More economically prosperous with much greater income balance. Less warlike. Much less economic drain. More of the socialism we already have. Better infrastructure. A government that works on all levels. Reduction in all the -isms. (A woman can hope!) No condemning, judgmental religions.

    Okay, that’s a bit utopian, but I think that would be the general picture.

  • Carlton Shardley

    It would likely implode from its own internal contradictions. It’s not hyperbole that Republicans are ignorant and incompetent; it’s objective truth–they are not capable of governing themselves, let alone others. It’s religion doesn’t become any truer, either, because of cultural autonomy — to be guided by fundamentalist Christian principles is to be guided by nonsense.

  • Jack

    Just an observation, Larry. There’s no good luck or bad luck at stake. It just is what it is.

  • Jack

    Debbo, you’re worse than utopian….you’re in space. There’s a reason so many parts of the north are just bleeding people who are moving south. They’ve been doing it for decades, and they’re doing it for economic opportunity coupled by a lower cost of living due to less onerous regulations, particularly in the housing industry. I really feel sorry for people who are middle-class anywhere, but especially in the high-tax, high-regulation, dinosaur states in the north. And I say that with sadness because I’m from the northeast and still think New York is the best, despite its increasingly lunatic political class and the clueless out-of-town lilly-white liberal ditzes from Ann Arbor, Madison, and Berkeley who keep voting them in.

  • Jack

    Well, Carlton, that’s your opinion, but apparently it’s not shared by people who vote with their feet, leaving deep-blue left-wing states in droves due to high taxation, oppressive regulation, and other consequences of far-left government policies that may work for quirky minds like your own, but not in the real world.

    And faced with such a population drain, your beloved left-wing, knuckle-dragging states are forced to raise taxes again and again on the poor wretches who either can’t or won’t move to better pastures.

    Enjoy…..and if you live near New York, enjoy the $14 toll at the George Washington Bridge!

  • Larry

    New York and California have some of the highest concentration of wealth in the nation.

    People are leaving these “deep blue” states in such numbers that there is a housing surplus in those markets. Homes are ultra-cheap there, /sarcasm

    There is no population drain to speak of.

    As for the GW Bridge, there is so much infrastructure to maintain, so of course it will cost a bit. Of course it costs nothing to leave NYC. They don’t care 🙂


    You really haven’t a clue what you are talking about.

    Those places without much in terms of business regulation, low taxes and “small government” are where our nation does our cheap manufacturing. Where per household capita income are low and housing cheap.

  • larry

    Not a well informed one.

    Rather than deal with the nonsense of a long drawn out, fact free/snark full conversation with you on the subject, I am just saying that the probable results of the GOP primaries will prove your assertions to be empty.

  • John McGrath

    Actually, when Lincoln was elected President there was a two-thirds majority in Congress to let the Confederate States of America go. But Jefferson Davis fired on Fort Sumter (against advice) and firing on the US flag riled everyone up against the Confederacy, You can learn about this in a fascinating, easy to read, and brief book whose tile starts, “American nations: The Evelen Rival regional Cultures … ” It gives the history of each regional culture and shows how the historic culture still lives on.

    Of course the south would have kept slavery and that would have led to an eventual war with th United States. Slavery would be one cause of war, the other would be the inevitable takeover of the Confederacy by Mexican and white Aryan drub lords. In addition the south’s economy, without federal US investment, would have remained third world. And there would be no TVA.

    And, of course, states in the Confederacy would eventually realize that they could secede.

  • observer

    The North would be a far better place without the South dragging it down. The North would have a better social welfare network be a richer Canada, less military and less government debt. The South would be a far poorer place. Remember all southern states take far more in Federal funds then they send in taxes. The racial mix of both countries would be different with a higher percentage of Black people in the South and less in the North because of the 20th century migration north. The South economy most likely would be that of a middle income nation like an Argentina with a greater divide between poor and rich.

  • Debbo

    Jack, that’s not true at all. I live in Minnesota, where our population continues to increase, economy continues to grow and our 19 Fortune 500 companies aren’t going anywhere. When Gov. Mark Dayton, a tried and true liberal, raised taxes on the wealthy, state Republicans described a massive exodus that was sure to follow. Didn’t happen.

    The thing you are missing Jack, is that states like Minnesota, which does have relatively high taxes, uses those taxes to provide excellent services. No, not perfect and not satisfactory to everyone, but very good services. In fact, Gov. Dayton and the Democrats have put more money in to education, especially in the early years.

    In the meantime, next door to Minnesota is Wisconsin, with uber-righty Scott Walker. He’s taken an axe to education and the working people, while coddling the wealthy while asking nothing of them. Wisconsin’s economy has taken a nose dive and there is no growth.