During the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, a war broke out. Not a shooting war exactly but certainly major conflict. Schools were shut down and people went to jail for conspiracy to blow up school buses and burn down schools. The issue? Textbooks.
Fundamentalist pastor Marvin Horan led a crusade against what he saw as the local school district’s attempts to use anti-American and anti-religious school books. Scholars researching the events discovered that there was more to this conflict that than met the eye. Those who favored the new school books broadly shared similar views on a lengthy checklist of issues ranging from education, social services, the role of government, national security, and school prayer. Those that opposed the textbooks shared opposing views. The most telling finding? When asked to rank a list of values, those that favored the textbooks ranked the importance of a “saved, eternal life” at the bottom, and those that opposed to the textbooks ranked it at the top.
Bill Bishop uses this incident in The Big Sort to illustrate the emergence of the new partisanship. He writes about Martin Marty’s observation on how America became divided between two types of Protestantism.
Bishop sees the Kanawha County episode as an initial flashpoint of Private Protestants re-entering the arena to battle with what they saw as their oppressive dismissive treatment at the hand of the dominant culture, with the Mainline denominations as its handmaiden, and its New Deals, New Frontiers and Great Societies. Values, particularly religious values, began to emerge as the dividing line for partisan identification. As that division intensified over the years, people in our highly mobile society began to seek out (consciously or not) others who shared their views on life and sorted according to those values.
Bishop points out that conservative political activists didn’t create the Kanawha uprising but they did see an opportunity. By marrying this new activist distrust of intrusive government by Private Protestants with small-government, free market advocates, they could create a potent political force. The rest is pretty much history. I think one of Bishops most important observations on this topic is as follows:
A final side observation. Bishop points out that regular church goers vote conservative in large majorities in the U. S. But it is not only in America that we have seen the alignment of regular church goers with conservative politics. Bishop says studies show that every industrialized nation shows the same phenomenon. However, in highly agrarian societies the relationship is reversed. Bishop writes that this is the answer to Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? In the 1890s, Kansas was agrarian. Today it is not. Bishop does not explain the relationship but I would expect that agrarian societies (using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) are more preoccupied with economic outcomes while industrialized post-materialist societies are focused on identity and values.