When the coronavirus pandemic was killing thousands of New York City residents in the spring, many far-right Republicans in Texas and the Deep South argued that they shouldn’t be forced to practice social distancing or wear protective face masks because of a Northeastern Corridor problem. They failed to realize that pandemics, from the Black Death in Medieval times to the Spanish flu in 1918/1919, can rapidly spread from one place to another. Historian Laura Ellyn Smith, in a blistering op-ed for the Washington Post, discusses the fact that COVID-19 has been hitting the South so hard recently — and argues that the “anti-science” views of far-right white Christian fundamentalists are partly to blame.
“After initially striking the Northeast and Pacific Northwest,” Smith explains, “COVID-19 has spread throughout the country. And now, the states with the highest new cases per capita are those across the South and Southwest. The Bible Belt — which stretches from South Carolina through the Deep South, west across Texas and Arizona — has seen high numbers of cases. And although the United States has seen cases everywhere, these states’ early reopening plans and hands-off measures — most recently, a ban by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on local mask requirements — reflect a cultural emphasis on prioritizing freedom from government dictate and an anti-science bias rooted in the history of the region.”
Smith, who graduated from the University of Mississippi and now teaches politics at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, England, notes how far-right southerners and supporters of President Donald Trump who “have resisted even simple measures, including social distancing and the now highly politicized wearing of masks.” And she points out that in Palm Beach County, Florida, extremists claimed that proponents of mandatory mask-wearing in public places “want to throw God’s wonderful breathing system out.”
To understand the origins of the “anti-science bias” in the Bible Belt, Smith notes, one needs to examine history.
“Where did this anti-science bias come from?” Smith writes. “It became rooted in southern culture and politics with the Scopes trial, popularly known as the Monkey Trial, in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial stemmed from the modernism rising in the post-World War I era. Southern whites felt that these changes challenged their way of life, including seeing the teaching of evolution as an attack on traditional values. They moved aggressively to retain socio-cultural control in a time of transformative change by limiting modern influences.”
After the Scopes trial, Smith notes, “anti-intellectualism” in the South “drew strength from the gathering of religious fundamentalists whose mission to spread their beliefs became more public as southern whites responded to changes that occurred as the result of the civil rights movement.” During the 1960s, Smith recalls, “White southern evangelicals saw their longstanding regional dominance threatened by civil rights activism and federal legislation expanding black civil rights…. During the same period, Congress and the High Court shattered Jim Crow segregation and banned prayer in public schools.”
Smith adds that in the 1980s and 1990s, “southern white evangelicals, who increasingly became the base of the Republican Party, came to associate intellectualism and science with coastal elites who looked down upon them and scorned their values…. This political culture fueled ever-increasing anti-intellectualism that traced its origins back to the Scopes trial.”
Smith wraps up her op-ed by arguing that the type of “anti-intellectual” forces that raged in the Bible Belt in past are still alive and well — only now, their target is anti-coronavirus measures.
“COVID-19 is proving that an unwillingness to listen to doctors and scientists can do great harm,” Smith warns. “Religious freedom and public health aren’t actually incompatible, but countering the anti-science bias that has become a stalking horse for the culture wars is crucial to creating better policies and allowing citizens to make the best possible choices for themselves and for society.”