Anyone who has watched the recent Mc-struggles between the city of Asheville and Buncombe County over such issues as zoning and annexation surely must come to the same conclusion that a well-paid consulting firm did several years ago: The city and county don’t like each other very much, and the resulting distrust threatens both present and future development. Wow! No kidding! Really? Pay me $65,000, and I’ll tell you some blindingly obvious things about Asheville and Buncombe County, as well. Or, if you like, just read on and I’ll Xpressly tell you the real reason for all the animosity … for free.
Why do Asheville and Buncombe County distrust each other so much? Simple. It’s religion. No, not the kind practiced in churches throughout the South on any given Sunday, or the kind in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants still wage holy war against one another — but the official privatization of religion sanctioned more than 200 years ago, when this nation established a constitutional republic. While the battle and debates over prayer in school and at football games occupy the larger public attention, the public/private debates continue unabated at the local level. When James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the founders officially privatized religion in 1787, they inadvertently set off one of the greatest religious explosions in history: a kind of New World Reformation. Today, the United States is the most religious of all the advanced, industrialized nations — north or south, east or west. And, here in Western North Carolina, we live on the buckle of the Bible Belt that holds it all together. Not surprisingly, then, religious arguments frame almost every major public debate here inWestern North Carolina, from evolution to abortion to homosexuality to annexation.
Several years ago, a friend of mine — a Yankee, no less — told me that she didn’t need to go to church to “get religion” or to learn the Bible here in Western North Carolina. Instead, she argued, all anyone needed to do was to read the editorials and letters to the editor in local newspapers.
For the past several weeks, I have cataloged editorials and scores of letters to the Asheville Citizen-Times for their religious content and public-policy emphasis. In spite of their editorial policy separating religion from policy issues, papers such as the Citizen-Times consistently have failed to keep the two apart. Why bother? In a November letter, Mark Kozak lamented the Citizen-Times’ policy, lambasted the media (always a favorite target), then took dead aim on three issues — among many — that have religious significance to many here in the Carolinas: abortion, gun control and the environment. Cal Thomas frequently defends religious values in terms of public-policy issues, while Jeff Lovitt, minister of Biltmore Church of Christ, pointedly asks, “Who will leap to the defense of Christians?” Jeffrey Leatherwood tried to give all of us a history lesson in his Citizen-Times letter by preachily telling us that, “We must be clear on [the] intent of our founding fathers regarding religion” — a lofty ambition, even for the most scholarly.
My point, though, has little to do with the specific stands on issues taken by Kozak, Thomas, Lovitt, Leatherwood or Diane Roland-Szabo. What seems more significant is that they all embody deeply held religious values, in a society that seems blatantly secular. Without a theocracy to provide a secure church/state relationship, the nation’s religious dimension constantly comes to bear on the challenges we face in everyday life, on questions such as annexation, zoning, prayer and abortion — in short, on those politics that bring out our passionate relationship with government. Here in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina, people attend churches, synagogues, codependency and 12-step groups — meetings that affirm the existence of a higher power and a coherent system of values, to be discovered by faith and practice. Without the kind of cohesive moral order provided by early Christianity or Islam (or even Puritan America), we have, in the words of Winnie the Pooh, a generic list of kinds of things that “you shouldn’t oughta do ” — i. e., steal from other people, litter, vandalize or abuse drugs — that, somehow, we all generally endorse.
As Mayor Leni Sitnick found out recently, groups that incorporate value systems based on religiosity tend to form political coalitions. In terms of religion, Asheville leans more toward a liberal culture, while Buncombe County and much of Western North Carolina tend to be more conservative. The problem with issuing proclamations about religion has less to do with denominations and churches, and more to do with perceived attacks on a common constitutionalism — i. e., ideas such as individual freedom and separation of church and state — that has, in effect, become our religion. These principles have become commonly accepted myths and reference points in a shared history, in which religion itself has, (on the surface, at least) lost its importance — only to be resurrected again in other spiritual expressions that are frequently political, as well as social. Thus, a proclamation by an elected official on behalf of a New Age group would, inevitably, “break the law” (in either a biblical or a secular .sense), while proclaiming a “Leadership of Jesus Christ Awareness Week” surely would offend liberal theologians along Church Street, and elsewhere.
The argument that followed the proclamlations tended to be constitutional and not primarily theological in nature. In fact, almost all those offended rushed to cloak themselves in the truth of the First Amendment, and not in religious dogma. All of them wanted to tell us what the original founders really meant when they set up the nation and wrote the Constitution.
In 1800, when Presbyterian minister George Newton denounced “ignorant Methodists, back-sliding Presbyterians, and once-dipped Baptists” in the Swannanoa settlements as the kind of people who shouldn’t live in Asheville, he set not only the religious but also the political tone for the distrust between the two areas. And much of that early animosity still remains today.
In terms of its values, much of Asheville’s stand on public-policy issues can be discerned from the multitude of liberal churches, denominations and self-help groups that dot the city: The Islamic Center, the Spiritual Episcopal Church of Mystic Christianity and the Seventh Coven of Wiccans exist alongside the mainline Southern Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal churches. Guess what their stand would be on issues such as gay rights, abortion, the environment, gun control and the protection of endangered bats in the national forests? Just look at their religious values and beliefs.
The reverse would also be true, in the case of Buncombe County and much of Western North Carolina. So, when another issue (such as annexation or cleaning up the French Broad) emerges that arouses such a passionate debate between Asheville and Buncombe County, think about religion as a hidden agenda — not about the virtues and vices of each position. Because, in Western North Carolina, it’s the righteousness — not the rightness — that determines public-policy outcomes.
[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]