Yes, There Really Are Two Americas. Look At How Different The South Is

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the War Between the States. The Northern states, fighting to preserve the Union and (later) to end slavery, defeated the Southern states in a war that resulted in over 600,000 dead.

The war all but ended the concept of state soverignty as the question of secession was decided on the battlefield. The war also gave birth to concept of American nationalism as Americans began to consider themselves as American before being a citizen of their state.

However, America is probably now divided more than it has been in decades. The nation seems to be hopelessly gridlocked politically. Meanwhile, the culture wars are in full swing with social justice warriors going to war against traditionalists and libertarians. There really are two Americas.

What explains the division? I argue that culture and region probably provide the best clues to the division of America.

The Economist had an excellent article earlier this month describing how the South is still culturally different from the rest of the country. Why is that the case?


The dividing line is actually religion.

Religion is a better explanation of southern exceptionalism. The civil war divided most of America’s Protestant sects, says Mark Noll of the University of Notre Dame. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches split into northern branches, which opposed slavery, and southern branches, which did not. Even after slavery ended, theological divisions persisted. In the north, which saw mass immigration from all over the world in the decades after the war, Protestant churches had to find some accommodation with Jews, Catholics and, eventually, non-believers.



In the South the share of those born outside America (which was low to begin with) actually fell after the civil war. New migrants moved west or north but rarely south. Because of this, southern churches could hold more traditional views without challenge. Those tented revival meetings that were such a feature of southern Protestantism were not intended to win converts so much as to purify and strengthen beliefs that were already there.



The Southern Baptist movement, which is strongly associated with the “values voters” who favour the Republicans, has its origins in support for slavery. Southern Baptists have long since updated their views on race, as the many black Southern Baptist pastors attest, but the movement’s social conservatism endures. And southerners are unusually observant: Utah is the only non-southern state where church attendance is as high as in Dixie.



Southerners are also known for being fiercely individualistic. As the rest of America becomes more secular, it should be no surprise that the region still strongly believes in the Protestant work ethic and tends to be more supportive of limited government. They’re also willing to forgo a large portion of the safety net because religious charities will largely step up and fill the role.

Another interesting thing about Southern culture is how it tends to leave its mark on surrounding cultures. There are reasons why in particular heavily Catholic south Louisiana, pre-dominately Catholic Hispanics in Texas, and the Catholic Cuban-American community in Miami are more conservative than Catholics in New England and the Midwest. Those Southern values of individualism, hard work, personal responsibility and family values have rubbed off on those communities.

Here’s an interesting map from The Economist article.

Courtesy: The Economist

Courtesy: The Economist

A lot of the orange on the map corresponds to the red state/ blue state maps on presidential elections. The more secular states tend to vote Democratic while the more religious states vote Republican. The views on abortion and gay marriage also tend to align with religious viewpoints.

As you can see, America is deeply divided between a more religious and ironically more individualistic South and Midwest and the more secular coasts. Could the differences between these two Americas lead to secession and civil war? Who knows.

Now, I don’t believe you have to be religious to be moral and that all religious people are moral. But I do believe that a free society only survives when it’s populated by a moral people. The purpose of this post is not to pass judgement on anyone’s religious beliefs.

Let me close with something. We have quite a few non-religious and atheist contributors here who believe in free markets and secular values. I value them all and I’m proud to call them friends. I also know they’re the exception, rather than the rule among secularists. Most atheists generally lean to the left and conservative and libertarian atheists tend to be the exception than the norm.

Here’s an exit question: do you think many secularists replace religion with a belief in the state and social justice and that’s why they’re hostile to limited government? Let us know in the comments.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at The and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.
  • Brad Warbiany

    Great piece, Kevin.

    While I’d agree that most atheists tend to fall on the left side of the spectrum, I’m not sure that “libertarian atheist” is uncommon at all. While I do think “conservative atheist” is rare, libertarians and atheists tend to both reject an established orthodoxy in favor of more individualistic ideologies. The courage to leave religion is not entirely unlike the courage to leave the two-party system in favor of a third way.

    As for your parting question, I wouldn’t say that most secular leftists have “replaced” religion with the state. I think most people on both sides tend to view government fondly. Even the conservative southerners aren’t asking to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, or to get rid of the entire “law & order” side of the government. I would say that most secular statists, however, simply feel uncomfortable associating with the Republican party. For those who accept the need to be part of a two-party system, they remake their political ideals around the Democrats, because they feel more at home there.

    I’ve been on the fence about a post idea… I think your piece here is going to put me over the edge to write it ;-)

  • Stephen Littau

    Very interesting analysis Kevin.

    The truth of the matter is that the Northern and Southern states had very different cultures from the very founding of the republic. As I understand it, the notion of succeeding from the union wasn’t really a controversial issue at the founding. Those at the ratifying conventions had the understanding that if the central government became tyrannical, the states could leave the Union peacefully. In fact the first attempt to succeed didn’t come from the Southern states but several New England states prior to the War of 1812. The only reason, I think, the idea of leaving the Union today is so radical is because of the Confederacy and its attempt to keep the institution of slavery.Apparently, the only reason a smaller political unit would want to break off the larger political unit would be to bring slavery back.

    Yes, the divide between the North and the South is still very real for the reasons you mentioned among others. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in one of these Southern states (Texas) I get more than a little annoyed by Northerners who act as if those who supported the union did so purely for moral reasons. They tend to forget that the original reason for the
    miss-named “Civil War” had more to do with keeping the Union together than ending slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves under Confederate control; slaves on the side of the Union were not freed (and
    yes, there were slaves under Union control). Most Northerners were probably indifferent to slavery at best (the Union army was not made up of staunch abolitionists by a long shot).

    Why? Because the North was more industrialized and did not depend on a slave workforce. Meanwhile in the agrarian South, cotton became an economic boon soon after the invention of the cotton gin. Tragically, what was great for the economy of the South meant the institution of slavery (which was beginning to fade away prior to the cotton gin) would get a boost. Had the roles been reversed, I doubt seriously that the North would have been so keen on ending slavery.