07 September 2004

Naipaul on the Fundamentalist Political Impulse

Naipaul finishes A Turn in the South at Chapel Hill, NC, not far from where he made his first foray into the American South.
I had been told that the politics of the region were "tobacco politics," small-farmer politics, in which a promise of a continued subsidy for tobacco-growers could somehow also be read as a promise to keep blacks in their place.

But Reverend James Abrahamson, pastor of the Chapel Hill Bible Church, thought that this ridiculing or underplaying of the conservatism of eastern North Carolina was foolish.

He said, "The fundamentalist political impulse has always been there. From the 1930s it has been repressed, largely because it did not have the support of the universities. Ideologically, the universities pulled up their tent pegs and moved to another side. Ideologically, they moved from a world view which embraced a Christian God to a place where the only reality that was recognized was material, could be measured, scientifically defined. They are reappearing--the fundamentalists--largely because they have seen or felt the pressure of a secular society.

"That eastern-North Carolina conservative side is viewed by many as being redneck and knee-jerk. Irresponsible--fanatical, almost. Unenlightened, lacking what I call the three 'I's--intelligence, information, and integrity. But they've got a stronger argument. They're easy to laugh at, and they'll never be popular. Our culture may self-destruct before they have a chance to articulate clearly the common sense they represent--for a culture that is based on more than self and materialism."

Jim Abrahamson--it was the way he announced himself on the telephone--was from the Midwest. He was a fundamentalist himself, and he felt that his Bible Church was meeting a need in Chapel Hill. He had a number of Ph.D.'s in his congregation; and his church was expanding. Extensive construction work was going on when I went to see him. American society, he said, had been built on a religious base. It couldn't float free. A recent poll had found that one out of every three Americans was a born-again Christian. "That's a lot of people."

But he had his quarrel with the fundamentalists of North Carolina. "I think there are powerful and legitimate and almost eternal principles that would recur again and again. But the people fighting for those principles are not able to articulate them palatably. The religious right appear not to understand the world view the left or the secular intelligentsia embrace. They tend to dismiss them as God-haters or infidels. And they have a difficulty about knowing how to translate religious ideals into a political policy."

It was the Islamic problem too--since the Islamic state had never been defined by its founder--and it was the prompting to fundamentalism in many countries: how to know the truth and hold on to one's soul at a time of great change.

It was strange that in a left-behind corner of the United States--perhaps the world motor of change--the same issue should come up, the same need for security.
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 284-285.

North Carolina's Research Triangle is a "left-behind corner of the United States"? Anyway, it's a book full of insights and fine writing. RTWT.

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