The British Roots of Jamaican Tonic Wines

Tonic wines are very popular in Jamaica and among the Jamaican diaspora, with a tonic wine named ‘Magnum’ being particularly successful through its association with the dancehall music scene and as a result of the popularly held view (encouraged by its bottle label artwork) that it enhances male sexual potency. Other similar Jamaican tonic wines include ‘Lion Pride Roots Tonic Wine’ and ‘Put it een Wine’. Also still popular, and produced in Jamaica under license by J. Wray & Nephew Ltd, is the veteran ‘Sanatogen Tonic Wine‘, which dates back to the early twentieth century and is a British product. As with many other British food and drink items that have found popularity in Jamaica, Sanatogen Tonic Wine made its way to Jamaica many decades ago, and its success was the inspiration for the development of similar homegrown products.

‘Magnum’ and other Jamaican tonic wines are relatively recent newcomers and, while they are of Jamaican origin, their roots clearly lie in Europe, rather than the Caribbean. Indeed, Magnum is basically a slightly tweaked copy of Sanatogen Tonic Wine. The tasting notes for both products found on the UK Tesco website illustrate this clearly. Of Sanatogen Tonic Wine, the site states: ‘Sweet full bodied tonic wine with damson and cherry notes’. And of Magnum: ‘Mellow, syrupy sweet with a distinctive cherry taste’. The key difference between Magnum and Sanatogen tonic wines is that the former is made using mead (honey wine), a drink with a very long British history – ‘something of a defining national drink from the days of yore’, as The Telegraph puts it. The Jamaican honey business has been a success story for a long time. A 1902 trade journal refers to ‘colonial honey’ in Jamaica, a 1901-2 edition of The Epicure (‘a journal of taste’) reports on ‘a boom in Jamaican honey’, and a 1905 edition of Agricultural News (a journal of The Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies) refers to honey as ‘another product of the colony’. A 1924 edition of The Journal of the Jamaica Agricultural Society offers a recipe for a non-alcoholic mead. Alcoholic versions were, no doubt, also available. The majority of alcoholic meads drunk in Jamaica today are imported from the United States, particularly from producers in Michigan, which has a long history of bee keeping, a legacy of the introduction of honey bees by British colonists.

The Tesco site gives also gives an identical disclaimer regarding both Sanatogen Tonic Wine and Magnum Tonic Wine: ‘The name “Tonic Wine” does not imply health giving or medicinal properties’. Such disclaimers point to the long history of dubious claims being made for the purported health-giving properties of tonic wines. In 2012, Magnum fell foul of alcohol marketing rules in the UK for ‘suggesting an association with sexual success and enhancement of physical capabilities’, but this was nothing new. An 1824 British book titled The Family Oracle of Health: Economy, Medicine, and Good Living, had the following to say about tonic wines:

This quack drug the Tonic Wine appears to be composed of very cheap stuff though it is sold at the exorbitant price of about 1s per pint… England no doubt is a free country and the people of England have the undoubted right to be gulled if they so please. Quacks therefore find it is the only country in which they can live and thrive. The same blessed freedom gives quacks and extortioners a right to charge what they please for their trash whether it be Tonic Wine, Balm of Gilead, Jordan’s Rakasiri gin or Hunt’s Roasted Corn.

Given the popularity of tonic wines in Jamaica, the authors of The Family Oracle of Health would no doubt be saddened (or perhaps, reassured?) to find that England is not, after all, ‘the only country in which [quacks] can live and thrive’.

The section of the book in which this quote is found focuses on the ‘Humbug of the French Tonic Wine’. The link to France is also referred to on the website of the English tonic wine, ‘Buckfast’, produced by the monks of Buckfast Abbey near Buckfastleigh in Devon since the late nineteenth century, and now notorious for its links to binge-drinking:

The recipe for the Tonic wine is attributed to the original French monks who settled at the Abbey in the 1880’s. Base wines from Spain, known as mistellas, were imported and to these were added the tonic ingredients according to an old recipe.

Buckfast Tonic Wine is to this day very popular in Jamaica and the Bahamas.

The aforementioned Sanatogen Tonic Wine is another English product that comes with European links and, interestingly, was also originally produced in Devon, in this case by Whiteways Cyder Co. Ltd. of Whimple, near Exeter. ‘Sanatogen’ was originally the brand name of a ‘brain tonic’ invented in Germany by the Bauer Chemical Company, in 1898. The English went on to combine this tonic with Ruby British wine. Many claims were made for the health-giving properties of the formula, and a 1939 advertisement for Sanatogen Tonic Wine in The Farmer’s Home magazine states:

‘SANATOGEN’ Tonic Wine consists of a full-bodied wine to which has been added the active ingredient of the famous ‘SANATOGEN’ Tonic Food. The latter has for many years enjoyed the highest reputation as a revitiliser of the whole body…

Santogen Tonic Wine was marketed to both men and women, with adverts in agricultural journals such as The Farmer’s Home and Modern Poultry Keeping, alongside many articles and adverts aimed specifically at women. However, while this advert, featuring a male, could appeal to anyone, by the 1960s, the focus was very clearly on a female demographic. Sanatogen Tonic Wine adverts of the period presented drinking the product as an answer to the boredom of being a housewife and the frustrations of motherhood. This was far from unique to the Sanatogen brand of tonic wine, for Buckfast promised to help women ‘cope with life’s little ups and downs’, and Phosferine Tonic Wine adverts claimed that women could ‘say goodbye to depression’ and ‘keep calm and banish depression’, by regularly drinking a high ABV wine-concoction with added ingredients of a dubious restorative nature. In the UK, tonic wines continue to be associated in the popular imagination with older women and younger binge-drinkers, but the products are still popular, as the website of the UK supermarket chain Morrisons makes clear:

Half a century on and the famous British institution of Sanatogen is going stronger than ever… An instant hit when it was introduced to the British shopper 50 years ago, this ruby tonic wine, which still includes the famous ‘Sanatogen Formula’, continues to win an army of fans. No longer making quite such wild claims for its restorative powers, it nevertheless remains a welcome taste of medium-bodied blended red wine with a fair heft of grapey fruitiness and nice warming finish. Whether Sanatogen ever ‘restored’ anybody remains a subject of debate, but we can confirm that they’d certainly be cheered up by this little bit of British history.

Over in Jamaica (and in the ex-pat Jamaican community in Britain), tonic wines are also going strong, but not as an answer to the anxieties of frustrated middle class housewives. Instead, as noted earlier, Magnum (and other similar brands) is a drink that appeals to a younger crowd, who like to party and who are very much sexually active. When sipping a Magnum and moving to dancehall rhythms, it is unlikely that any of these young people realise that the drink in their hand, far from being a novel product of Jamaican culture, is actually thoroughly British in origin.

Guinness: A Very British Drink

Today, Guinness is seen by many as a quintessential expression of Irish culture. If you attend a St. Patrick’s Day event – which now take place all over the world – drinking Guinness is basically mandatory. Unsurprisingly, this stereotypical ‘Irishness’ has its critics. In an article titled ‘Hey Americans, Please Stop Pretending to Be Irish’, for example, James Nolan notes: ‘Even in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is fake culture… distilling our myriad contributions to the world to a pint of Guinness and parades of people in stupid costumes’ [1]. For those who identify as Irish in the United States, notes Rosita Boland in The Irish Times, ‘Ireland itself, the country, is the abstract, romanticised receptacle of dreams and green fields, and the place that will soothe a lifelong ache’ [2]. Undoubtedly, it is not just self-styled ‘Irish-Americans’ who hold such a view of Ireland: indeed, many a Guinness drinker sitting in any one of the thousands of identikit ‘Irish pubs’ the world over probably assumes that sipping the ‘Black Stuff’ somehow connects them to this mystical land. However, when the real history of Guinness is examined, what emerges is a very different story.

Guinness, in fact, is the creation of a Protestant Anglo-Irish Unionist family, who produced their own version of an English drink (stout porter), made using a roasted malt technique patented by a London brewery worker, then worked closely with an ex-pat English brewing family (from whom came the company’s head brewer and accounts manager), and took full advantage of the trade opportunities afforded by the British Empire to make their drink an international success story. Indeed, the immense popularity of Guinness Foreign Extra in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa today (as well as in the Caribbean) is a part of that colonial history [3]. The Guinness family, from the first Arthur onwards, were ardent Unionists who strongly opposed the movement for Irish independence, with the company’s managing director donating the modern equivalent of £1m to the UVF in 1913. Since 1932, Guinness has been headquartered in London and it is owned by a British multinational company. Far from being a manifestation of a putative Irish culture, Guinness is in fact a thoroughly British drink, from its origins in the porters of London to its ongoing success in the former British Empire, where, quite rightly, in fact, Guinness ‘has absolutely nothing to do with wearing green or hunting down leprechauns at the end of rainbows’ [4].

The History of Guinness: A Timeline

1722: Porter was invented in London by an English brewer named Ralph Harwood [5] and became ‘the first beer to be brewed on an industrial scale’ [6]. Strong beers were known as ‘stout’ beers, so strong porters were called ‘stout porters’.

1759: Arthur Guinness began brewing in Dublin upon acquiring the St. James Gate brewery, initially producing ales. The Guinnesses ‘were Protestants and on excellent terms with the leisurely, moneyed English landlord rulers of Ireland’ [7].

1770s: Arthur Guinness started brewing stout porters [8].

1776: John Purser of Tewkesbury, England, moved to Dublin from London and made ‘a name for himself as a porter brewer for some of the leading Dublin firms’ [9].

1786 or 1787: The Purser family and the Guinness family met. The Pursers went on to help with the administration of the Guinness brewery for 87 years [10].

1797: Arthur Guinness was named by The Union Star newspaper as a suspected informer for the British: ‘A brewer at James’s Gate, an active spy. United Irishmen will be cautious of dealing with any publican who sells his drink’. In this period, Arthur Guinness was ‘directly opposed to any movement toward Irish independence’ and wanted ‘Ireland to remain under English control’ [11].

1801: Guinness started brewing ‘the West Indies Porter’, which went on to be known as Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.

1803: Arthur Guinness II took over his father’s brewery and ‘he gradually expanded their exports – first to England, and then abroad to Barbados, Trinidad, and the British Colony of Sierra Leone’ [12].

1817: Porter was originally brown, but was given its darker colour by the addition of licorice, burnt sugar, or condensed wort. However, ‘sugar, the most common additive, was not taxed, so in 1816 the British government declared that only water, hops and malt could be used in beer, and added sugar to the list of banned ingredients’ [13]. Daniel Wheeler, a maker of burnt sugar of Charles Street, Drury Lane, London, came up with a solution, and in 1817 patented a process of using ‘an iron cylinder similar in construction to a coffee roaster to roast malt to the point where a small amount of malt could darken a large amount of beer without imparting an overly burnt or tarry taste to the entire brew’ [14]. London brewers soon took up Wheeler’s approach to producing black malt or ‘patent malt’, and Guinness followed, leading to the creation of the dark Guinness we know and love today.

1820: Guinness were exporting to the West Indies and throughout the British Empire [15]. This was consistent with the Protestant Unionist philosophy:

Unionism has strong liberal and internationalist traditions which are sometimes ignored. It was premised on a positive identification and engagement with mainland Britain as the best means for the advancement of Ireland. Unionists also shared a wider faith in the British Empire as the most effective vehicle of political and economic progress across the world [16].

1820: John Purser, junior, was made head brewer at the St. James Gate brewery [17].

1821: John Purser, senior, ‘had all the secretarial and cash side of the brewery firmly in his hands: the cashier reported to him, and the cask accounts were kept by him’ [18].

1827: Guinness Foreign Extra Stout arrived in West Africa: ‘Where the British Empire established colonies or stationed soldiers, Guinness shipped their beer’ [19].

1839: Arthur Guinness II handed over control of the St. James Gate brewery to his son, Benjamin Lee Guinness [20].

1862: A pictorial representation of ‘that most sacred of Irish patriotic relics, the minstrel harp of Brian Boru’ was trademarked by Guinness [21]. While the minstrel harp is often associated with Irish nationalism, it also has a strong British connection:

In about 1534 Henry VIII had a crowned harp appear on the Anglo-Irish silver groat (or 4 pence) and half groat coins. After this, the harp on a blue background features on various official royal occasions. It is on Queen Elizabeth I’s charter to Dublin city in 1583. A banner with harp emblem was carried at her funeral in 1603. King James I incorporated the harp in the royal arms and standard of Britain in 1603 where it still remains [22].

1866: Benjamin Lee Guinness, referring to the Irish nationalist Fenians, wrote of ‘those wicked and worthless adventurers who would not only deprive our country of the advantages which, as a part of the British Empire, we enjoy, but who would overturn all the social arrangements of society’ [23].

1868: Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, became managing director of the Guinness company, a position he held until 1927 [24].

1886: The firm’s shares were first traded on the London Stock Exchange [25].

Late 1880s: ‘[D]emand for regular porters had evaporated. Stout porter—shortened, simply, to stout—took its place’ [26]. Eventually, English porter production dwindled to the point that Guinness took over as the primary brewer of ‘stout porter’, which came to be known simply as ‘stout’.

1913: Lord Iveagh (Edward Guinness) donated £10,000 (about £1 million in today’s money) to the Ulster Volunteer Force to fund a paramilitary campaign to resist Ireland being given legislative independence [27; 28].

1916: ‘The company was alleged to have lent men and equipment to the British army to help crush Irish rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916, afterwards firing members of staff whom it believed to have Irish-nationalist sympathies’ [29].

1932: The company moved its headquarters to London, where it has been based ever since [30].

1982: Guinness considered rebranding itself as an English drink, as a result of the actions of the IRA. Public relations chief Edward Guinness met with embassy officials in London, who reported:

Mr Guinness remarked that an association with Ireland was part of the Guinness image. He was no longer sure this association with Ireland was helpful. They were encountering a lot of resistance to the Irish angle and this could force them to emphasise facts such as that Guinness was an English company which had its base at Park Royal. Indeed they had publicity material of this kind ready during the Falklands crisis but had not used it. They might also have to cease their association with organisations and functions [31].

In the end, the plan was not put into action and the Irish identity of Guinness remained intact.

1990: The Irish Pub Company was founded. The company created the concept of ‘out of the box’ Irish pubs, shipping ‘everything you need to make the quintessential pub, from the floorboards to the bric-a-brac, around the world’, leading to the huge international popularity of the ‘Irish pub’, all of which look exactly the same, because they are exactly the same [32].

1992: Guinness set up its ‘Irish Pub Concept’ project ‘as the benchmark for developing quality Irish Pubs outside of Ireland’ [33]. Guinness and the Irish Pub Company became partners, placing Guinness at the heart of the ‘Irish pub’ experience. According to the Irish Pub Concept website, ‘[s]ome of the most unusual places to find one or more Irish Pubs are Baku in Azerbaijan, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, Gili Trawangan in Indonesia and Ushuaia in the most southerly tip of Tierra del Fuego’ [34].

1997: Guinness PLC and Grand Metropolitan PLC merged, creating Diageo, the world’s seventh-largest food and drink company, with brands in its portfolio including Guinness, Johnnie Walker whiskey, Gordon’s gin, Smirnoff vodka, Burger King, Green Giant vegetables, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream [35]. Just as Guinness was itself since 1932, Diageo is based in London. The St. James Gate brewery in Dublin continues to produce Guinness, although the company that owns it is a British multinational.

A Critical Examination of the Rastafari Religion

In the early Twentieth Century, a movement developed among black people which sought to fight back against years of imperial rule and oppression of Africans and people of African descent. Ideologues such as the ‘Back to Africa’ black nationalist Marcus Garvey presented a vision for African regeneration in which black people would return to Africa and rule themselves, with the hope of a renaissance of African civilisation and the building of a new pan-African nation. This was a time in which followers of this movement were looking for a great leader who would come and bring these hopes to life. In a similar scenario to that of the Jews of 2,000 years ago, there was a sense that the coming of a messianic figure was at hand. For the followers of the Rastafari religion, the messianic saviour took the form of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia.

On July 23, 1892, a boy named Tafari Makonnen was born in Ethiopia. This boy, who was to be given the religious name Haile Selassie (‘Power of the Trinity’) was raised with a wide ranging education, taking in both Shoan Amharic traditions and Western history, languages and statecraft. At the age of 13, Selassie became Dejazmatch (the Ethiopian equivalent of a Count or similar nobleman) of part of Harage province, and he went on to become Ethiopia’s regent from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. Garvey ‘prophesied‘ ‘Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer’ and shortly afterwards, on 2 November 1930, Selassie was crowned as Emperor in an extravagant Cathedral ceremony attended by an international audience of royals and dignitaries. As Emperor, Selassie took on the titles ‘Lord of Lords’, ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah’, titles which were traditional for all Ethiopian Emperors but which he reportedly ‘gloried in’. Selassie had pretensions of being a direct living descendant of the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba but was nonetheless an ostensibly devout Orthodox Christian who made no further claims to spiritual power or authority.

As Emperor, Selassie was a moderniser and a reformer, but these reforms largely benefited Ethiopia’s land owning classes and outside his circle of admirers and devotees Selassie is widely regarded as a ‘feudal autocrat’ and ‘a tyrant who enslaved the peasants’ of Ethiopia. In 2000, Ethiopia’s government stated that ‘Selassie’s reign was marked by its brutality and extreme oppression of the Ethiopian peasants’ and spoke of its continuing efforts to trace millions he is believed to have deposited in foreign bank accounts. Selassie ruled over ‘a system that created a small class of wealthy landowners but kept most subjects in abject poverty’ and during a famine towards the end of his reign that killed hundreds of thousands ‘his moral authority was undermined by images of him feeding his pets prime meat while his people starved’.

Selassie’s reign was cut short when Marxist revolutionaries deposed him, placing him under house arrest. He died in mysterious circumstances and many believe he was murdered by his captors. Certainly, his remains were contemptuously and unceremoniously buried beneath a toilet. On November 5, 2000 his bones were finally moved to a tomb in Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral, in an Imperial ceremony presided over by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, although shunned by the Ethiopian government for the reasons stated above.

This very brief overview of Selassie’s life demonstrates a very human ruler, someone who was clearly a fallible character, a man who fell prey to human weaknesses such as decadence, delusions of grandeur, and the desire to subjugate those over whom he had authority. None of this is particularly shocking or unexpected, given the context. For the followers of the Rastafari religion, however, Selassie is a figure of devotion whose hagiography bears almost no relation to the historical figure, and even within his own lifetime Selassie was hailed by thousands as living incarnation of God. Indeed, for Rastafarians, Selassie was, amongst other things, ‘the Almighty on earth in the flesh of Man’, ‘the head of creation’, ‘the God of all ages’, ‘immortal’, ‘omnipotent’, and ‘the world’s greatest political leader of the twentieth century’.

Under the influence of Garvey, many black nationalists in Ethiopia and beyond concluded that Selassie was the awaited African Messiah, the man who had been sent by God to save the black race and lead it into a new era of greatness in the ‘promised land’ of Ethiopia. For Rastafarians, the coming of Selassie is prefigured in Old Testament prophetic texts and amongst the proofs of his messianic and divine status are various miracle stories and tales of Selassie’s unparalleled wisdom. First, there are signs in ‘the heavens’, as we see in Rastafarian accounts of Selassie’s birth and youth. In a typical Rastafarian narrative we read:

His birth had been foretold by astrologers and chaplains. They reasoned that the planets of  Neptune and Pluto, would intersect in July 1892 having started moving towards each other 493 years earlier in 1399. This would in turn influence the constellation Leo, that is the house of Judah. They also foretold the great drought that started in 1889 and was broken at the moment of the child’s birth thus confirming his identity and destiny.

On the fortieth day of His life He was baptised according to custom and given the name HAILE SELASSIE which means POWER OF THE TRINITY. At the moment of baptism He became totally aware and although this knowledge faded at the time, it returned as He grew. His  teachers were astounded at the depth of his knowledge and standing (understanding) of Incient religious texts. He could also converse with animals; and savage beasts became docile in His presence.

Another account states that:

At an early age, He displayed an exceptional understanding of Ethiopia’s ancient religious texts. In addition, it has been said that he could speak to the animals; He would be seen in the presence of leopards and lions. In His presence, these ferocious beasts were tamed.

And here is a more detailed account, including a miracle story:

The world should know that he is the Almighty, it is prophecised, the prophecy has been fulfilled, open your eyes and look. Haile Selassie from his youth, was a mysterious person who was said to have been feared by priest and other persons working in the palac … Their [sic] is a story about Haile Selassie in his youth, his father & mother was astounded by his vast knowledge and wisdom of and from the bible. They brought in priest to talk with him to ask him where he knew all these things from, Haile Selassie knew books that aren’t printed in the bible, like the 8th, 9th & 10th books of Moses, the Dead Sea Scrolls, he would know line for line. The priests would ask him questions and he would call them to tell them the answer in their ears and the answers he would give would frighten the priests away, and some would never return to see him. At one time their were two priests talking to Tafari, who had claimed he talks to animals and the wild beasts in the jungles of Ethiopia, One of the priests asked Tafari to draw one of these animals, so Tafari requested for crayons and a piece of paper and began to draw it formed into a dove of bright multi-colors and before the priest could question Tafari about the bird on the page he was dumbfounded when he saw it arise off the paper and fly through the window, the two priests hysterically left the palace and never returned.

So, in Rastafarian accounts of the coming of Selassie we find the notions that planetary phenomena indicated the coming of a divine figure, that at the moment of Selassie’s birth a drought miraculously ended, that the young Selassie astonished religious leaders with his wisdom, that the child could converse with dangerous animals, and even that he was able to make a drawing of a bird come to life. There are obvious parallels here with the Jesus story, in which we find a star leading  ‘wise men’ (most likely astrologers) to seek out the newly born Messiah, and a child who stunned religious leaders with his understanding (Luke 2: 41-52). The story of the drawing of a bird coming to life also has interesting parallels. In an early (2nd or 3rd Century CE) non-canonical account of Jesus’ youth, ‘The Infancy Gospel of Thomas‘, we find a tale of Jesus making clay birds which he then brings to life, and this story is also repeated in the Qur’an.

For Rastafarians, many aspects of Selassie’s life are found in Biblical ‘prophecy’. So, for example, we find this interpretation of the story of a drought ending upon the birth of Selassie:

The birth of “Tafari” gave back to the land Ethiopia the Divine Blessing as in Genesis 1 v1, “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.” as in Genesis 1 v2, “…and darkness was upon the face of the water.”  The birth of “Tafari” on that stormy night in the year of St. John 16th Hamle 1885 (23rd July 1892) represents the fulfillment of Genesis 1 v2. Lighting and Thunder with Flooding, the Spirit (Tafari) of God moved upon the water. A good “Omen” to Ethiopia.

Further Biblical associations are given with regard to Garvey’s ‘prophecy’ of the coming of a great African king and ‘Redeemer’ and for some he is seen as a ‘mighty Prophet’ and ‘greater John the Baptist’. Likewise, the ceremony in which Selassie was made Emperor is seen to involve the literal presence on earth of the Biblical Samuel:

The Ancient Rites of Anointment performed by Abuna Krilos (The Prophet Samuel returned) 2nd November 1930 on the person of Rastafari. Transfigurated the person to the Eternal Godhead Haile Selassie I “‘Might of the Trinity’; The Christ; The Messiah; The Anointed One”, who has returned to reign as The Lion of the Tribe of Judah; The Root and offspring of King David”, fulfilling Revelation 5 v5.

Selassie’s resistance to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and his subsequent European exile is reported to have been attended by miracles and to have been prophesied in the Old Testament. According to one tale, ‘While they where launching their bombs at Ethiopia one fell directly by King Selassie’s foot, the King put his foot upon the bomb and said, “This bomb will not go off in my country,” and it never did to this day’. And of the exile we read:

Haile Selassie I, 1936 leaving Ethiopia for Europe and Geneva, and the League of Nations, fulfilled this prophecy of Isaiah, when the King prophecy against the democracy of Europe and predicted the 2nd World War. This fulfillment established Emperor Haile Selassie I as the Prophet.

On April 21, 1966, Selassie conducted a State visit to Jamaica, an event that has entered the Rastafari calendar of holy days as ‘Groundation Day’. Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica was met with an extraordinary outpouring of religious devotion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Jamaican Rastafarians had never seen Selassie before, his cult had spread widely among the population, who fervently believed him to be the prophesied black Messiah and incarnation of God. A report from the Jamaican newspaper The Jamaica Gleaner recalls the events of the day, when a crowd of 100,000 gathered to greet their God:

The heat that rose from the tarmac of Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport was nothing compared to the level of expectation that was seeping through the thousands gathered on the tarmac that 21st day of April, 1966. The day was declared a public holiday in honour of the Emperor and people had started arriving from Wednesday night from places near and far, to form the largest crowd to have ever assembled at the Norman Manley International Airport. They came to the airport any way they could ­ by car, by truck, by bus, by bicycle, by foot. Drum beats and chants were heard almost non-stop, providing an almost hypnotic rhythm. The smell of ganja wafted through the air completing a welcome unprecedented in size and expectation for the Emperor on his first state visit to Jamaica.

Brother George Huggins of Accompong, explained the enthusiastic welcome, “it is hard to put in words what seeing this man, this great man, the Lord of lords, in Jamaica meant to us in the Rastafarian community. We had heard so much about him for so long.” On the tarmac, some waved palm leaves, some red, green and gold Ethiopian flags, and some blew the Maroon cowhorn known as the abeng in welcome. Everyone kept their eyes on the sky wondering when the plane carrying His Imperial Majesty from Trinidad and Tobago would arrive. Rain began to fall and the crowd continued to wait, hoping even for just a glimpse of the plane through the thick clouds that had formed.

When the insignia of a roaring lion and stripes of red, green and gold finally came into view, the rain stopped. People shouted, “See how God stop de rain.” The sound from the crowd was deafening as masses of people rushed to get closer to the island’s distinguished visitor. The crowd simply broke down any barriers that stood in their way in their eagerness to position themselves as close as possible to the “King of Kings.”

Today, the date of this visit continues to be commemorated by Rastafarians, who mark ‘Groundation Day’ with music, chanting, and prayer. As with many other events in Selassie’s life, Rastafarians report miraculous phenomena on that day. For devotees, the ending of rainfall and the emergence of sunshine that occurred as Selassie’s aeroplane arrived is seen as another nature miracle (‘See how God stop de rain’) and there are reports of the presence of doves in the sky and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy:

On Thursday the 21st of April, at the arrival of our Divine Majesty, there was great signs and wonders in the Heavens. At his arrival the firmament became dark, the sun withdrew its shining and there came out of the Heavens thunder, storms, hails of lightening and great rain appeared in the Heavens; this all happened in a moment; it was a moment of inclement weather.  There appeared in the Heavens a flock of white doves, followed by the appearance of the sun in all brightness with the arrival of a plane which landed at the Palisades Airport.

At that hour the weather became serene as before.  There were raised up great shouts of jubilation, because the King of Zion had come.  Here Psalms 18 is fulfilled, “He Bowed the Heavens and came down and darkness was under his feet, and he rode upon a cherub and did fly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his secret place; His pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.  At the brightness that was before Him his thick clouds passed, hall stones and coals of fire.”

The Jamaica visit also led to the conversion of the wife of reggae star Bob Marley, Rita, to the Rastafari religion, after she claimed to see the mark of the stigmata on Selassie’s hand as he greeted the crowd. For her, this ‘miracle’ was proof that Selassie was indeed the promised Messiah and the incarnation of God.

The hysterical devotion that greeted Selassie in Jamaica was surprising, even disturbing, and he refused to leave the plane for 45 minutes until his safety could be assured. Selassie did not consider himself to be the Messiah nor to be divine. He was a Christian and there are reports that officials turned Rastafarians away from his palace gates for fear of upsetting his religious sensibilities. These facts have had no effect on Rastafarian belief and even Selassie’s death has done nothing to dampen their convictions that he is God and the saviour of Africa. In what is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Rastafari belief system, most Rastafarians refuse to accept that Selassie died at all.

In the initial period after Selassie’s death and the throwing of his body into an unmarked pit, Rastafarians maintained that either Selassie was still alive and hidden from view, taking shelter in some undisclosed location from where he would eventually emerge and lead Ethiopia to salvation, or that he had ascended bodily into heaven and would soon return to re-establish his rule on earth. The subsequent discovery of Selassie’s bones and their reinterment has done nothing to disabuse Rastafarians of these notions. The answer is simple: the bones were not his and he is still alive. Just as news of Selassie’s death in 1975 was presented by Rastafarians as ‘a trick of the white media to undermine their faith’, the same is said of his bones. While some Rastafarians attended Selassie’s funeral in 2000, they were simply there to observe the proceedings and were unconvinced.

A Sudanese Rastafarian who had settled in Ethiopia told the BBC:

Haile Selassie is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is everything to us Rastafarians and we will never accept that he is dead.

A Rastafarian leader from Trinidad and Tobago claimed:

We do not believe that he is dead. We communicate with him in spirit daily. Haile Selassie is very much alive.

Rita Marley agreed:

Rasta people will be all loving his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I. There is no end of his reign.

From 1933 onwards, inspired by the black nationalist and Afrocentric philosophies circulating at the time, key Rastafarian founder Leonard Howell started to preach the doctrine that black people are the true biblical Israelites, that Haile Selassie was the Messiah, and that blacks would head to Ethiopia, which was seen as a black equivalent of the Holy Land. Drawing on the ideology of Garvey and books such as The Holy Piby (which ’emphasizes the destruction of white “Babylon” and the return of the Black Israelites to Africa which is the true Zion’) and The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy, Howell put together a book titled The Promised Key (1935), setting out the ideas that would form the basis of the Rastafari belief system. As we have seen, this is built on a foundation of a bizarre mix of decontextualised Biblical passages and prophecies, plainly fanciful and unhistorical notions regarding Haile Selassie, and secular black racialist positions. The Rastafari view of the Bible and the history of the Israelites is, from a scholarly point of view, completely absurd. The ancient Israelites were the Semitic forefathers of the modern Jewish people, not black Africans, and none of the prophecies in the Bible pertaining to the messianic age have anything to do with the people of Jamaica. Likewise, YHWH (Yahweh), formerly mistranslated as ‘Jehovah’ (and entering Rastafari as ‘Jah’), is the sacred name of the Jewish God, not the name of any African deity. This is hardly a controversial position. Similarly, from a perspective grounded in historical fact, rather than bizarre hagiography, almost every single statement made by Rastafarians regarding Haile Selassie is bogus. The Rastafarian version of Haile Selassie is a literary fabrication, and Selassie did not endorse any of the notions about him promoted in Rastafarian belief.

While a strained interpretation of the Bible forms a key part of the Rastafari theology and also religious practice (the wearing of dreadlocks is, for example, ostensibly grounded in the Nazarite vow of Numbers 6:5), Hinduism also, surprisingly, had an important influence on the evolution of Rastafari. In the period 1845-1917, more than 2,000 Indians came to Jamaica as indentured servants, bringing with them their religious beliefs and cuisine (this is the origin of Jamaican dishes such as ‘curry goat’). These Indian workers introduced ganja to Jamaica, which they used for spiritual and medicinal purposes. This use then entered into Rastafarian practice. Many of these Indians also practiced vegetarianism as part of their religious worldview, and this then passed into Rastafari in the form of the ‘Ital‘ vegetarian (or vegan) dietary requirement.

Leonard Howell was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Hindu indentured servants. Joseph Hibbert, another founding father of Rastafari, stated that Howell’s notion of Haile Selassie as a divine figure was as much grounded in Indian notions as it was in supposed Biblical prophecies, for ‘after learning about the Hindu God incarnates Rama, Krishna and Buddha, Howell was convinced that every nation had their own God’. When Howell published The Promised Key, he did so under the pen name G.G. Maragh (the ‘GG’ meaning ‘Gong Guru’). ‘Gong’, a title used by Howell, was an abbreviation of ‘Gangunguru’, a combination of the Hindi words gyan, gun, and guru, meaning ‘wisdom’, ‘virtue’, and ‘teacher’. Maragh, meanwhile, translates as ‘great king’ or ‘king of kings’. Bob Marley’s nickname ‘Tuff Gong’ is derived from Howell’s use of the term. So, just as the Bible was appropriated and mangled to become a ‘black’ book, Hindu beliefs and practices, and even Hindi words, were taken out of their original context and given a new ‘black’ identity.

The black people of Jamaica suffered centuries of cruelty and abuse under slavery. Ripped from their homelands and forced to labour for the benefit of Western overlords, it is hardly surprising that their sense of having a religious and cultural identity of their own was greatly eroded. In a post-slavery context, the rise of an ideology aimed at creating black identity and fostering black pride is entirely understandable, and justified. However, the Rastafari faith is ultimately a deeply unsatisfactory attempt at constructing a black philosophy, for the simple reason that it was so transparently constructed through a process of appropriating the religion and culture of other ethnic groups, for its use of a frankly absurd Biblical exegetical method, and for its complete misrepresentation of the historical reality of Haile Selassie.


Note: Part of the above text was originally published by the website Butterflies & Wheels under the title ‘Against Mythicism: A Case for the Plausibility of a Historical Jesus’, and was republished in 2010 by Think: Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

How I reckon ‘I reckon’ became a ‘Southern’ expression

In Britain (and also in Australia), the verb ‘reckon’ is used very often in everyday speech. We look at the sky and ‘reckon’ it will rain. When it does, we ask, “How long do you reckon this will last?” We plan a trip and ‘reckon’ we should leave early. A friend phones us to ask, “What time do you reckon you’ll get here?” We ‘reckon’ a repair job will be expensive and ask, “How long do you reckon it’ll take?”

Earlier this year, the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wrote in an article for The Telegraph: ‘I reckon I speak for millions of people on all sides of the debate when I say that after almost three years of Brexit I am fit to burst with impatience’.

Henry Mance writes of the Queen in the Financial Times: ‘I reckon she will forgive Mr Johnson all his past indiscretions’.

James Kirkup has written in The Spectator: ‘I reckon that in a secret ballot it would pass the Commons quite easily’.

In the United States, however, this use of ‘reckon’ is commonly associated with the Southern states and, disparagingly, with the speech of ‘rednecks’ and ‘hillbillies’. There is seen to be something quaint, archaic, and perhaps ignorant about ‘reckoning’. Lynne Murphy, an American scholar who is currently a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex in England, writes:

Something that my American visitors often find surprising about British English is the copious use of the verb reckon…

Since my American visitors have all, like me, come from the Northeast, the use of reckon is noticeable because it’s a word we associate with the Southern US or with rural dialects.

Likewise, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that I reckon ‘formerly was in literary use… but came to be associated with U.S. Southern dialect and was regarded as provincial or vulgar’.

A Southern Living magazine article on ’24 Phrases Only Southerners Use’ states:

“I reckon” can replace any number of phrases, such as: I guess, I suppose, I think, and I imagine. It is a quintessential Southern phrase, said by friends and family on porches and in rocking chairs all across the South.

Previously, I have noted that old English speech ways live on in the Southern states and have argued that more than any other region of the United States, the South has most closely preserved its origins in the England of old. ‘I reckon’ may indeed be a ‘quintessential Southern phrase’, but that is, of course, because it is a quintessentially British phrase, and an old one at that.

The earliest written use of ‘reckon’ in this sense is considered to be found in a 1603 letter penned by the English statesman Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury: ‘and he is, I reckon, no wise man that looketh this way to heaven’.

Across the Atlantic, in 1697, the Englishman Francis Nicholson, then Governor of Maryland (who went on to be Governor of Virginia and then of South Carolina), wrote: ‘To make tenable forts would cost a great deal of money – I reckon that one good one would cost £4000’.

Back in England, the Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (whose father came to Ireland from Herefordshire in England), employed ‘I reckon’ in a letter he wrote in London in 1712: ‘I reckon the Queen will go to Windsor in three or four weeks’.

Again in the United States, the Virginia Parson Anthony Gavin, writing to the Bishop of London in 1738, stated: ‘I go twice a year to preach in twelve places, which I reckon better than 400 miles backwards and forwards’.

In 1748, the English author Samuel Richardson wrote in his celebrated novel Clarissa: ‘I shall have a good deal of trouble, I reckon’.

Both in England and in the Southern Colonies of British America, then, ‘I reckon’ was used by literary figures and those of higher social rank. However, use of the verb was not a specifically higher class or solely English phenomenon. Indeed, it was thoroughly British.

James Beatie’s 1787 compilation of ‘Scoticisms’ (words and phrases commonly used in Scotland) includes an entry for ‘I reckon’:

reckon it will be rain to-day. – I think, conjecture, am of opinion, apprehend, &c.

Mary Palmer’s 1837 book A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect states:

I Reckon, I Guess, v.a. are idiomatic in Devonshire, illustrating a remark that has more than once been made, that most of the dialectical peculiarities of our transatlantic neighbours are probably to be ascribed to the exportation of local provincialisms from the mother country.

Interestingly, Palmer seems to share the northern American view that ‘I reckon’ is somehow a rustic expression (Devon, it should be noted, is indeed a very rural county), despite the fact the word was widely used across Britain by all social classes. Her point about the origins of the ‘dialectical peculiaries’ of American English is nonetheless interesting and valid, especially where the English of the southern states is concerned. Also of interest is the fact that Devonians in the nineteenth century were using ‘I guess’. As we have seen, in the United States, ‘I guess’ is far more common than the ‘Southern’ phrase ‘I reckon’. In contemporary Britain, ‘I guess’ is very much seen as an Americanism. I grew up in Devon in the 1980s and 1990s and cannot recall hearing ‘I guess’, even among older farmers. ‘I guess’ was also unknown to James Beatie.

In 1886, Frederick Thomas Elworthy published The West Somerset Word-Book; A glossary of dialectal and archaic words and phrases used in the west of Somerset and East Devon. In the book, Elworthy provides numerous examples of the use of ‘I reckon’, given in the context of dialectical sentences. For example:

I’ve a-drawd a load o’ apple-pummy up in the copse, I reckon they (the pheasants) ‘ll zoon vind it out.

And:

Hant a-zeed’n to-day, I reckon he’s ‘pon the fuddle agee-an.

The latter, in modern speech, would read: ‘I haven’t seen him today, I reckon he’s on a drinking binge again’. To be ‘fuddled’ was to be intoxicated.

John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) states:

FUDDLED. Tipsy; drunk. This word is common in England and the United States, but is only heard in familiar language.

Russell was not entirely correct. In The Southern Literary Journal Vol. III, published in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1837, we read: ‘General Tolliver Grinaway had become pretty much fuddled – his speech got thick and his mind oblivious of the particular subject under discussion’. So ‘fuddled’, like ‘I reckon’ before it, was employed both in literature and in common speech.

From this examination of the history of ‘I reckon’ on both sides of the Atlantic, a few questions arise: Who brought ‘I reckon’ to the United States? Why did ‘I reckon’ fall out of use in the northern states? And why did ‘I reckon’ come to be seen as a phrase used by rural people?

Regarding who first brought ‘I reckon’ to the United States, we can safely assume that both the wealthy upper class colonists and the indentured servants they brought with them were familiar with this expression. We know from writings from colonial Maryland and Virginia that those of higher social rank made use of ‘I reckon’, but we also know from British authors that ‘I reckon’ was used everywhere from the West Country to Scotland.

The early colonial settlers of the southern states came in large numbers from the southern regions of England, and from the Midlands. Their speech ways influenced the dialect of both Southern whites and blacks alike. The indentured servants they brought with them were also drawn particularly from the southern counties of England. Of those servants who sailed from Bristol in the period 1654-1659, the largest number were drawn from Bristol, Somerset, and other West Country counties. As we have seen, Somerset speech included much use of ‘I reckon’. Both the colonists and their southern English indentured servants, then, were likely the first to introduce ‘I reckon’ to the Southern dialect.

The next group to bring ‘I reckon’ to the South were the much talked of (and derided) ‘Scots-Irish’, who came to the United States from Ulster but whose origins lay in Scotland and the northern counties of England. ‘I reckon’, according to James Beatie, was a ‘Scoticism’. Given the Scots-Irish settled in large numbers in Appalachia, it is unsurprising to find ‘I reckon’ referred to as an Appalachian expression. An article on ‘The way we talk’ in the Waynesville, North Carolina, newspaper The Mountaineer, for example, includes the following:

Reckon (Believe): “I reckon Cousin Charlie is too sickly to come this year.”

Traditionally close-knit, Appalachian communities have arguably preserved some older forms of English than are found in the speech of the wider American population. The Appalachian term ‘booger’, meaning ghost, for example, likely shares a common root with the Scottish word ‘bogle’. Likewise, the Scottish word ‘agin’ (against) is echoed in the Appalachian word ‘agen’.

Arguably, more than any other group of white Americans, Appalachian ‘hillbillies’ have been, and continue to be, subject to ridicule, even as mockery of other groups of Americans has become socially unacceptable. The major chain store, Target, for example, sells a novelty stereotypical ‘hillbilly outfit’ (as do other retailers); Amazon sells items such as ‘Billy Bob’ teeth; many horror films portray ‘backwoods’ people as inbred, perverted, homicidal, and even cannibalistic; professional party planners offer ideas for ‘redneck-themed’ parties, replete with all the worst stereotypes and class-based mockery. You can find plenty of other examples of ‘white trash’ party ideas (another example here) with a simple internet search.

In the twentieth century, huge numbers of Appalachians moved into the wider United States, taking up jobs in the growing manufacturing sector, and Appalachian migration routes came to be known as the ‘Hillbilly Highway‘. These Appalachians were often looked down upon as backward, ignorant, and uncivilised. A 1934 article in The Nation, titled ‘The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit’, states:

The hill-billies, with their extremely low standard of living and lack of acquaintance with modern plumbing, are looked down upon by all but the most intelligent local workers, both native and foreign-born.

Undoubtedly, their traditional manner of speaking would also have been scorned, and this is likely the origin of the notion that ‘I reckon’ is somehow ‘rural’ or ‘Southern’ (and Southerners are often erroneously assumed to constitute an undifferentiated mass of rural simpletons). Chi Luu, writing for the scholarly site JSTOR Daily, notes the following:

[W]hile the Appalachian dialect can be paradoxically praised for being “pure,” and for preserving a prestigious archaic form of the language, the people who speak it are frequently socially stigmatized as ignorant and uneducated for using “incorrect” English, just as other non-standard varieties of English are, such as African American Vernacular English (or AAVE). A verb like “reckon” (as in, I reckon it’ll take five minutes) is regularly used in Australian and British English vernacular, yet the exact same usage in Appalachian English is stigmatized as backwards hillbilly talk. American language attitudes show a marked disrespect and prejudice for marked dialects like Appalachian English.

The AAVE comparison is interesting, as AAVE also preserves older modes of speech brought to the South in the colonial period (examples include ‘I be’ for ‘I am’ and ‘yo’self’ for ‘yourself’).

When Northerners have encountered the speech of Southerners, they have often assumed that expressions such as ‘I reckon’ are somehow specifically Southern. It obviously wasn’t always that way, as British settlers in the northern regions would undoubtedly also have used ‘I reckon’. The Boston gentleman and business leader Thomas Brattle, for example, writing in 1692 on the Salem witch trials, states ‘they are possessed (I reckon) with the Devill’ and ‘I reckon that the only pertinent evidences…’ In an 1858-9 edition of The New York Coach-makers Magazine, we find ‘I reckon’ still in use (‘I reckon you are right’). At some point after that, ‘I reckon’ seemingly fell out of favour in the North, with ‘I guess’ becoming the standard expression. By the time the ‘hillbillies’ arrived from Appalachia in the twentieth century, ‘I reckon’ was considered backward and characteristically Southern, as it is to this day. I reckon this a shame, as well as being historically ignorant.

 

‘Pawns of Monsanto’? Farmers Challenge the Narrative

Dave Walton is ‘a full-time farmer in Cedar County, Iowa, growing GM and non-GM corn, soybeans, alfalfa and pasture on about 500 acres of the world’s most productive soil’. He states: ‘I’m no pawn of Monsanto‘:

If you believe many of the cyber-arguments, the seed and chemical company Monsanto has control over what farmers do, say, plant, etc. I’ve been told by denizens of the online forums that Monsanto “controls” farmers…

There are no seed company minions running around out here in the countryside telling us what to do. Sorry to disappoint some, but it simply does not happen. If someone from Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, whomever would come into my office and tell me what to do, he would likely get a tongue lashing that would make a sailor blush, then summarily be told were to put that opinion, and to get the hell out or be removed. By me. Without a shadow of a doubt this would happen, and has.

Read the whole post here.

Greg Peterson, of the Peterson Farm in Kansas, writes:

There is a general feeling on the internet of “poor farmers being under Monsanto’s control.” In reality, nearly every farmer you talk to recognizes that Monsanto is just another big agricultural company who they can *choose* to buy seeds or chemicals from. There will definitely be some farmers that don’t like Monsanto, simply because they make a lot of money and charge a lot for their products, but farmers continue to buy Monsanto products because they are the best option for their farm, not because they are being forced to in any way.

Read the full post here.

Brian at The Farmer’s Life states: ‘I raise corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat on an Indiana farm with my dad and grandpa’. He writes:

I’m a family farmer, and I have signed a Monsanto contract. I’m the 4th generation to work this land. Somewhere along the line the idea corporations control farms or farmers are slaves to “Big Ag” came about. People claim that we are beholden to corporations like Monsanto and have to sign unfair contracts to be privileged enough to use their seed. They’ll also claim that the contracts rope us into buying other inputs like insecticides and herbicides from the same company. We get a lot of our seed from agribusinesses like the “evil” Monsanto so I’d like to other you my thoughts on this issue…

Read the full post here.

Jenny Dewey Rohrich is the wife of a sunflower farmer in North Dakota. In a piece for the Huffington Post (hardly a bastion of support for Monsanto), she poses the question, ‘Do Have Farmers Have Choices?’ Rohrich writes:

There seems to be a consensus going around that farmers have no choice when it comes to the seed they choose to plant. Or if they do have a choice, large corporations like Monsanto force it upon them. And if anybody tries to voice their opinion and let the farmer’s themselves speak upon their choices, the individual suddenly becomes a pawn for Monsanto.

She then goes on to speak to actual farmers and get their viewpoints. It’s a fascinating read:

Out of every single farmer I surveyed, 100% said they felt like they have a choice when it comes to the seed they plant. Not one farmer surveyed felt pressured into choosing a certain kind of seed, but instead felt like they have a good variety of seed to choose from and that they were free to choose however they wished. One farmer responded, “Just as you have the choice on what seeds to purchase from your favorite garden store, we have the choice on what we want to buy from our favorite seed salesman.”

Rohrich asks: ‘If somebody accused you of being a pawn for a large corporation because of the seeds you choose, how would you respond to that?’ Here’s one of the responses:

I would invite them to do the research with me. First we go through the list of potential seed candidates every year comparing conventional, GM, and hybrids. Then we compare yields, cost per acre to keep plants alive, and then we throw in the variables: drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, early frosts, and untimely rains during harvest. If they could come up with a perfect seed variety after comparing the hundreds of varieties available from the hundreds of corporations and mom-and-pop seed companies, THEN I’d listen to them.

Read the whole post here.

See also Layla Katiraee’s post ‘Dissecting claims about Monsanto suing farmers for accidentally planting patented seeds’.

The Myth of Christian America

It is often noted that the United States of America is a unique outlier among the developed nations of the West in regard to its intense Christian religiosity. While church pews have emptied across Europe, America retains a strong Christian identity and church attendance rates vastly higher than those seen elsewhere in the West. However, when the Christianity of Americans is looked at more closely, it becomes clear that America is not simply the last bastion of an otherwise moribund Christian civilisation, but is, rather, a nation with a unique form of Christianity that actually bears little relationship to the Christianity that once thrived elsewhere in the West. American Christianity is arguably a religion in its own right, and is often only superficially connected to the broader historical traditions of Western Christianity.

From its founding, America’s relationship with Christianity was always somewhat awkward. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to state that Americanism as an ideology was never truly rooted in a Christian conception of the world. Obviously, Americans have historically, in large numbers, identified as Christian and seen the Bible as a central authoritative text, but the founding philosophy of America, along with the associated essentially materialistic and this-worldly notion of the ‘American Dream’, point to a worldview that represents a significant break with historical Christianity.

In the United States Declaration of Independence, we read of the ‘unalienable rights’ that are said to have been given by the Creator, and ‘that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. This triune formula has arguably come to represent the core of the American ideology, and lies at the heart of the ‘American Dream’, in which free individuals are able to pursue both happiness and the material prosperity which is seen to underpin it. The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and then edited by the Committee of Five. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ features both in Jefferson’s original draft and in the final Declaration, so this concept was widely accepted from the outset. Jefferson, while a religious man, was far from an orthodox Christian:

While Jefferson was a firm theist, the God in which he believed was not the traditional Christian divinity. Jefferson rejected the notion of the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity. He rejected Biblical miracles, the resurrection, the atonement, and original sin (believing that God could not fault or condemn all humanity for the sins of others, a gross injustice). In neither the eighteenth century nor today would most people consider a person with those views a “Christian.”

This is significant, in that the author of a key concept in the American ideology was himself only somewhat Christian in outlook. The notion that the message of the New Testament is one of pursuing worldly happiness is clearly false. We find warnings not to store up worldly treasures (Matthew 6:19–20; Luke 12:33) and Christians are told that they will suffer and be hated on account of their faith (Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 10:22; John 15:18-19), not that Christianity will result in people being wealthy and happy in this world. Christians are told that they do not belong to the world (John 15:19), that they cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24), and that they should not worry about worldly concerns (Matthew 6:25-34). All of this is deeply incompatible with an ideology of worldly happiness and also with ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone’ (in the New Testament, such a land is found in the Kingdom of God, not in the world). This is not solely a problem in relation to America, for attempting to fit the New Testament’s eschatological proclamation around the mundane realities of a world that carries on turning has been a central theological concern within the churches throughout Christian history. However, there is arguably a particularly stark contrast between the worldview found in the New Testament and the American perception of the virtues of financial success and the acquisition of material possessions. Primitive Christianity preached world-negation and self-denial, whereas Americanism embraces worldly success and the pursuit of worldly happiness.

While American history contains numerous examples of radical Christian movements, failed eschatological proclamations, mass revivals, fiery preaching, and high levels of church attendance, it is wrong to assume that contemporary American Christianity stands in direct continuity either with historical Christianity or even with many manifestations of Christianity found in the history of the United States. If the history of American Christianity has been marked by an uneasy attempt to combine the philosophy of the Declaration with the words of the Bible, it seems clear that today some of the largest manifestations of American Christianity are in fact spiritualised forms of an American ideology that is only tangentially related to what has previously been understood as Christianity.

By way of example, consider the huge popularity of celebrity preachers such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, both of whom fill megachurches, have a large TV audience, and have published numerous successful religious books.

Of his ministry, Osteen states:

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people.

And Meyer asks:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

Jason Byassee, a United Methodist Church pastor, offers the following critical commentary on Osteen’s best-selling book Your Best Life Now:

Osteen’s book abounds with examples of trivial everyday concerns. Can’t get a green light? Pray with faith, and that light will change. Can’t find a parking place? Claim God’s victory, and see divine favor as someone pulls out and leaves you a space in the front row. Worried that you haven’t found the perfect date, someone like Osteen’s wife (who is, by the way, praying for us as we read her husband’s book, as Osteen promises in an epilogue)? You’ve guessed the answer by now: pray, stay positive, and God will build up the remarkable list of coincidences to have you meet that special person.

While the likes of Osteen and Meyer may seem to be fringe figures in the wider context of American Christianity, their message is arguably far from out of step with much of what contemporary American Christians believe, and have done for some time.

In her 2003 book, Making Virtuous Daughters and Wives: An Introduction to Women’s Brata Rituals in Bengali Folk Religion, June McDaniel cites the work of one of her (American) students who in a test looked at various sub-types of Hinduism and decided which one she preferred. For the student:

The best type was folk religion. People in folk religion cared about being healthy, rich, getting a good husband and having children, having lots of food, and good weather. She said that the church that she attended was just like that – everybody wanted health and wealth and an attractive boyfriend or husband, and prayed for passing tests and getting jobs and winning lawsuits, just like in India. She said that the Christianity she knew was very much like Hindu folk religion.

That the views and experiences of this student are very mainstream amongst American youth was clearly revealed in Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, which was the result of an in-depth study of the spiritual worldview of American young people of a variety of backgrounds. Smith writes:

[W]e can say that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of “Christianity” in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language — and therefore experience — of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.

Smith and Lundquist Denton coined the term ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as a name for a group of interconnected beliefs that they found to be common among American teenagers. These beliefs were espoused not only by young Christians, but also by young Jews and Muslims, and are as follows:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

The only substantive differences between Christian and non-Christian forms of this belief lie in church attendance and invoking the name of Jesus when praying for help. Smith notes:

This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist — he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.

In the Christian form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, then, Jesus is the non-judgemental, non-demanding butler and therapist to whom the adherent directs his or her requests. This is the Jesus of the likes of Osteen and Meyer; a Jesus who ‘wants us to be happy’ and ‘wants to give us nice things’, not a Jesus who will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, as the Nicene Creed states.

The moral component of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not specifically Christian:

It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.

In other words, being a good American. Smith writes that this belief system ‘effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life’. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, one might say.

Perhaps most significantly, Smith and Lundquist Denton concluded that the embrace of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism among teenagers is not the result of young people rebelling against the religion of their parents, or simply being religiously illiterate, but is in fact in continuity with the beliefs of their parents. Smith explains:

Adults in the United States over the last many decades have recurrently emphasized that which separates teenagers from grown-ups, highlighting things that make each of them different and seemingly unable to relate to each other. But, as reported in our book, Soul Searching, our conversations with ordinary teenagers around the country made the contrary clear to us, that in most cases teenage religion and spirituality in the United States are much better understood as largely reflecting the world of adult religion, especially parental religion, and are in strong continuity with it. Few teenagers today are rejecting or reacting against the adult religion into which they are being socialized. Rather, most are living out their religious lives in very conventional and accommodating ways. The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strike us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations, and structures of the larger adult world into which adolescents are being socialized.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees with this assessment, writing:

The “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” that these researchers identify as the most fundamental faith posture and belief system of American teenagers appears, in a larger sense, to reflect the culture as a whole. Clearly, this generalized conception of a belief system is what appears to characterize the beliefs of vast millions of Americans, both young and old…

All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.

Likewise, Brian Cosby of The Gospel Coalition argues:

MTD isn’t just the problem of youth ministry; it’s the problem of the church. And American Christianity has become a “generous host” to this low-commitment, entertainment-driven model of youth ministry.

Sociologists and Christian leaders alike, then, have identified the fact that millions of church-going Americans, including those who consider themselves to be conservative evangelicals, are believers in a religion which bears little relation to historic Christianity, is not primarily grounded in the Bible, and preaches a message of worldly success and happiness. Repentance and salvation are replaced with niceness, non-judgementalism, and ‘good people going to heaven when they die’; Jesus as divine judge is replaced with Jesus as a best friend who wants to help you to be happy and to give you nice things. Of course, all of this deeply undermines the popular contention that the United States stands out among the Western nations as being the last outpost of fervent Christian belief. Even in the Bible Belt, the notion that we find a deeply Christian population is dubious to say the least, and getting ever more so.

The United States does indeed stand out amongst the Western nations in terms of religious adherence, but the claim that this religion is Christianity (as historically understood) looks increasingly inaccurate. Arguably, many Americans are actively religious and the nation is notably religious as a whole, but large numbers of these religious Americans are followers of a uniquely American faith – a spiritual Americanism. Smith contends that ‘Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith’, but I’m not so sure. Arguably, in fact, this ‘quite different religious faith’ was there from the Founding, in the religious outlook of people like Thomas Jefferson, and it has always been present as Americans have sought to combine their loyalty to Christianity with their loyalty to Americanism and ‘the American way of life’; to find a way to simultaneously love Jesus and to love worldly success and the accumulation of wealth and material possessions. In the tug of war between the Gospel and the pursuit of worldly happiness, it is evidently the case that for many American ‘Christians’, the desire for worldly happiness has won.

While many may mourn the loss of ‘old time religion’, American Christianity (as defined above) is a religion that is far better suited to people living in an increasingly diverse society and is ultimately far more socially ‘useful’, with its focus on fostering good relationships, aspiration, and self-improvement. A ‘nice’ religion may seem toothless and self-indulgent, but if it offers a way for people to experience community and ‘find happiness, security, and meaning in life’, it is far more valuable than a religion based on apocalyptism, a blood sacrifice, and threats of hellfire.

But, it is isn’t Christianity.

The Myth of the Christian South

The South was not always the deeply religious place it is known as today. This was to change after the American Revolution, as evangelists spread out across the region, with great revival meetings making numerous converts. Initially, this was a counter-cultural movement:

Although the American Revolution swept away the institutional structures of the Anglican Church in the South, the itinerant evangelical preachers who subsequently flooded the region at first encountered resistance from southern whites, who were affronted by their opposition to slaveholding and traditional ideals of masculinity, their lack of respect for generational hierarchy, their encouragement of women’s public involvement in church affairs, and their allowance for spiritual intimacy with blacks.

However, in order to become firmly entrenched in the South, the evangelicals eventually shifted from opposition to the status quo to accommodation, thus embedding evangelical Christianity deeply into the life of the region:

[T]hese evangelicals achieved dominance in the region over the course of a century by deliberately changing their own “traditional values” and assimilating the conventional southern understandings of family relationships, masculine prerogatives, classic patriotism, and martial honor. In so doing, religious groups earlier associated with nonviolence and antislavery activity came to the defense of slavery and secession and the holy cause of upholding both by force of arms–and adopted the values we now associate with the “Bible Belt.”

As the Confederacy was formed and the Civil War approached, Christian ministers increasingly presented white supremacy and slavery as being central to God’s plan for the South. The ‘providential trust’ held by the South, stated a South Carolina minister a few weeks before the state seceded, ‘is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing’. As the Civil War raged, another South Carolina minister preached: ‘The triumphs of Christianity rest, this very hour, on slavery; and slavery depends on the triumph of the South’. Slavery and white supremacy, he insisted, were ‘the will of God’. This was fully in line with the ideology of the Confederacy. As Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, stated of the Confederacy in his famous ‘Cornerstone’ speech on March 21 1861:

[I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

After the Civil War was lost, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ started to take hold, with the war being presented as having been fought to preserve a unique ‘Southern way of life’. This ideology presented the South as a God-fearing, agrarian land, which stood in opposition to perceived irreligiosity of the industrialising North:

Defenders of a self-consciously “southern” civilization after the Civil War came to use the term “way of life” to indicate an ideological defense of a peculiar pattern of institutions and attitudes associated with the South. Whites saw their system of paternalistic white supremacy as the essence of a southern civilization, but the “way of life” included countless specific attitudes and customs rooted in cultural beliefs and practices and reified as a constructed social identity. Religious institutions and leaders gave a spiritual gloss on the “southern way of life,” infusing it with transcendent significance and blurring the lines between Christianity and southernism. Above and beyond religion’s defense of a self-consciously southern ideology, religion in the South was indeed distinctive within national patterns of religion, and it was a central part of life for many people.

Key elements of the ideology of a ‘Southern way of life’ included the centrality of fervent religious faith, the notion of Southerners being a people of the land, and a lack of interest in secular education. These features of Southern life continue to be clear today. The ‘agrarian myth’ has always been important to how Americans in general view themselves and their history. As Richard Hofstadter noted: ‘This sentimental attachment to the rural way of life is a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins’. But perhaps nowhere has this idea been more durable than in the South. David French of National Review, writing in 2018 on ‘What Democrats Don’t Get About the South’, argues that contemporary Southern politics are ‘about the South as it sees itself’. For French:

Southerners love God. They respect the traditions of faith and family–including manners and respect for elders. Southerners are connected to the land.

He explains:

The majority of the people don’t hunt or fish or farm, but they feel connected to people who do. A Tennessee lawyer may never leave a paved road, but he’ll drive a truck that can haul hay. Even people who don’t own guns value the South’s gun culture.

Yet this notion of Southerners being ‘connected to the land’ is founded in a mythical view of the past, as the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes:

Although the romantic mythology of the Old South likes to depict planters and plain folk alike as down-home people rooted in the southern soil while transient and money-grubbing Yankees visited the destructive forces of industrial capitalism on the northern landscape, the environmental havoc wreaked by white southerners of all classes was, if anything, greater than that caused by the industrializing North. Extensive soil exhaustion and erosion, deforestation, the hunting of species to near extinction, ramshackle dwellings that reflected the transience of much of the southern population, the preponderance of destructive feral hogs, the often careless use of fire in agriculture – these were the hallmarks of much of white society in the antebellum South.

Another hallmark of the culture of the Old South that has persisted into the modern era is a lack of emphasis on the importance of education. In the antebellum South:

Southern elites showed little interest in public education and and allowed only limited opportunities for advanced schooling beyond their own ranks… Southern elites also remained indifferent to if not opposed to funding primary educational opportunities for those outside the gentry ranks, even as public schools for children proliferated throughout northern states in the early nineteenth century.

Education was for the wealthy elite and was ‘less practical than ornamental’:

The southern gentry’s determination to use education to groom future patriarchs and affirm class status even shaped the curriculum and rituals of university life… Classical studies remained central to most southern universities’ curricula even as scientific and practical instruction supplanted it in European and northern schools.

Where educational opportunities for the lower ranks did exist, they were often sub-standard. Frederick Law Olmsted was appalled by what he found as he travelled across the South in the 1850s. Writing of the ‘ignorance and torpidity’ of the people of North Carolina, he noted:

The teachers are, generally, totally unfitted for their business; young men, as a clergyman informed me, themselves not only unadvanced beyond the lowest knowledge of the elements of primary school learning, but often coarse, vulgar, and profane in their language and behaviour, who take up teaching as a temporary business, to supply the demand of a neighbourhood of people as ignorant and uncultivated as themselves…

This was very different to the situation in the northern states:

In the 1840s, the growth of state funded public education was blossoming in states from Connecticut to Illinois. However, the Southern states did not have a tradition of public education to build on, as the North did, and in fact, it was well after the Civil War before the South legislated for state supported schools.

Needless to state, educational opportunities for blacks in the South were even more dire.

This poor level of education across the board is arguably a factor that contributed to the intense religiosity of the South, for a lack of education can be seen to correlate with a high degree of religious fundamentalism. Looking at the modern South, Alabama and Mississippi are tied for the most religious state in the US, and they are also found within the bottom ten states for high school graduation and higher education. Likewise, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee all make the bottom 10 list for education and the top 10 list for the percentage of adults who are ‘highly religious’. Outside the South, similar correlations can be seen in Oklahoma and West Virginia, both of which appear in the two lists.

Throughout the antebellum period, then, deep religious commitment was a defining feature of the ‘Southern way of life’, and this continued into the postbellum and contemporary eras. Southern religiosity, of course, was not simply about the maintenance of white supremacy or a worldview that filled the void left by a lack of educational opportunities, as it also served an important communal purpose in a largely rural region:

A church, particularly a Southern church, used to be a community center.

It was where you made friends and kept up with friends, where you ate supper on Wednesday nights, played on a softball team, sent the kids after school, fulfilled your community service duties, made business connections, got your musical fix in the choir and maybe joined a reading or knitting club.

And being a part of a church once was, essentially, a status symbol for many people in the South.

The ‘black church’ in particular had a vital communal purpose, providing an oasis from white racism and a focal point for community activities, as well as playing a key role in the Civil Rights movement.

Identifying as a Christian and attending church have long been central to the life of the South, as has the contention that Southerners, inhabiting a large chunk of the ‘Bible Belt’, are deeply committed to family and to ‘traditional morality’. Indeed, a standard stereotypical image of Southerners holds that they are a bunch of Bible-thumping religious zealots, who advocate strict sexual standards, and spend half their lives in church. Increasingly, however, this picture is starting to look very inaccurate. It is worth examining how much contemporary Southern religiosity is actually about a deep ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, and how much of it is largely rooted in cultural norms and regional identity.

Matt Moore, writing for the Christian Post, recounts his experiences of growing up in Louisiana:

I was born and raised smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Almost everyone I knew intellectually assented to the truths of the Bible, had prayed a prayer at some altar in some church as a child, attended worship service regularly, voted Republican, and blessed the food at dinner…

As I continued to see the vast differences between the kind of Christian depicted in the Bible and the kind of Christian I observed in my church-on-every-corner culture, I began to question whether a profession of faith in the Bible Belt really even meant anything…

The lips of these moral, conservative, church-going Southerners knew the Christianese language. Their butts were acquainted with the church pews. They lived in close proximity to the things of God, but their hearts, from my limited perspective, couldn’t have been deader toward the Author of Life.

When Moore came to an evangelical faith himself and started talking to people about Jesus, he found that this did not elicit positive reactions, and that the conservative evangelicals around him ‘seemed utterly disinterested in the actual person of Jesus’.

Moore is far from alone. A 2017 Financial Times article on evangelical support for Donald Trump quotes Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman Baptist minister and emeritus professor of history at Auburn University. The article’s author writes: ‘I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful’:

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality…

Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them.

A look at statistical data collected by Pew Research seems to bear this out. In Mississippi, 82% of adults say they believe in God with absolute certainty, although the number who attend church weekly (or claim to) is 49%. 54% of adults surveyed believe homosexuality ‘should be discouraged’ and 61% oppose or strongly oppose gay marriage. 59% believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Despite the sizeable number of Mississippians with strong views on homosexuality and abortion, when it comes to morality in general, there seems to be much more flexibility. Asked about their belief in absolute standards for right and wrong, 38% agreed in their existence, but 60% said that ‘right or wrong depends on the situation’. Similarly, 48% of respondents cited non-religious sources for their understanding of right and wrong, such as ‘common sense’ (50% said religion). These are hardly positions we would generally associate with a strict religious worldview, suggesting the high level of religious identification is not linked to an equally high level of pious behaviour. Mississippi ranks highest out of all the states for births to unmarried mothers, second for states with high rates of pregnancy among women aged 15–19, and third lowest for number of married people. It is also the tenth most violent state in the US, and ranks fifth highest for incarceration rate. So, while Mississippi ranks highly for belief in God, and for church attendance, the majority of Mississippians hold morality to be situational, rather than absolute (except when it comes to homosexuality and abortion), and almost half do not cite Christianity as the primary source of their understanding of right and wrong. Heterosexual sex outside marriage, and not being married at all, are clearly seen by many Mississippians as acceptable behaviour, even though this violates the ‘traditional values’ they profess to uphold, and the violence and large prison population stand in contradiction to the notion that Mississippi is a deeply religious place in terms of people living in accordance with Christian moral standards (the long history of religion being used to justify slavery and then segregation also calls into question the notion that Mississippi was even historically especially Christian, except in name).

The statistics follow a similar pattern in neighbouring Alabama (joint most religious state) and Louisiana, with high levels of belief in God, high levels of church attendance, and high levels of commitment to ‘traditional values’ existing side-by-side with a belief that morality is situational, not absolute, high rates of teenage pregnancies and unmarried mothers, high rates of violence, and very large prison populations.

What all of this suggests is that the supposed deep Christian devotion of the South is in fact more a case of a deeply ingrained cultural identity in which claiming a belief in God and certain narrow moral standards, combined with going to church, are for many Southerners essential components of what it means to be ‘Southern’. As David French put it, ‘Southerners love God’. To be ‘Southern’, then is to be Christian, regardless of whether or not that religious affiliation has any significant impact on the way individuals actually live their lives. To be ‘Southern’ is to attend church (even though many admit they do not do so weekly) and – often – to give money to that church (indeed, the claim that the more religious states are more charitable than the less religious states falls apart once donations to churches and religiously-identified organisations are removed from the equation).

Perhaps, rather than viewing the South – and the Deep South in particular – as being uniquely and deeply Christian, it is more accurate to state that the South is uniquely religious. On the white side, that religion most strongly manifests itself as what might be termed ‘Southernism’. It has a God, it has churches, but it is also fundamentally ideologically grounded in the ‘Southern way of life’. This way of life is not inspired by the Bible and by the teachings of Jesus, but is instead nominally Christian and its primary beliefs are more grounded in ‘tradition’ than in the Bible itself. This is how slavery was able to be seen as being a Christian phenomenon and the ‘will of God’; it is how white preachers could give moral credence and a Christian stamp of approval to segregation, and why white Southerners saw no contradiction between expressing devotion to a Jesus who says “Love your neighbour as yourself,” while at the same time treating black Southerners as a sort of subhuman. And today, it is how large numbers of Southerners who identify as evangelical Christians can express a deep devotion to a President who engages in personal attacks, revels in the accumulation of worldly goods, has boasted of his sexual promiscuity, and is manifestly insincere in regard to his supposed ‘Christian’ beliefs.

Meanwhile, on the black side, Southern Christianity manifests itself as a community support network and political advocacy movement wrapped in the garb of religion. That is not to say black Southerners are not very religious, but rather to suggest that this form of Christianity is more based on black identity, black community, and social justice than it is on Biblical notions of sin and redemption. To give an obvious example, the majority of black children are born out of wedlock and raised in single parent households. So, while the ‘black church’ may have many adherents, it is clearly less interested in traditional notions of Christian morality than it is in offering support to black communities and an outlet for joyous singing and dancing.

Ultimately, then, the notion that the South is deeply Christian is debatable to say the least. The South is – overall – still deeply religious, both in terms of professed belief in God and church attendance, and there are various historical and sociological factors that underpin this, but the notion that the South is a key part of a ‘Bible Belt’ rests on a misunderstanding. Despite outward appearances, religion in the South is not Bible religion – it is Southern religion, and indeed it is religion of the South.