23 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 6: Normanization and the Benedict Option

Miles Smith (follow on Twitter @IVMiles), a visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College, certainly had the most catchy title for his paper: "The Manhood of the Southern Saxons: Normanization and Presbyterians in the Antebellum South, 1830-1865." Who knew there was such a thing as "normanization theory" in sociology? Indeed, as a technical term it's far more intriguing than the older expression "fictive kinship." In any event, normanization refers to a people who adopt a social/cultural ideal of an idealized aristocratic social structure even though they have no ties to any aristocracy.

Smith's "Southern Saxons" were antebellum Southern Presbyterians who distanced themselves from those associated with revivalism, such as Baptists and Methodists, and increasingly found their cultural allies among the upper-crust Episcopalians. In short, descendents of pre-1787 anti-slavery Roundheads joined themselves to elites Cavaliers. The cultural/political content of such an aristocratic ideal was largely negative, that is, it was anti-democratic and anti-reform.

Jumping ahead a century-plus, Smith mused about the contemporary Presbyterian "reversal." Rather than migrating to a gentrified upstream, today's southern Presbyterians find their cultural affiliates among the Baptists. Nothing wrong with Baptists, mind you, but what's the root of this Presbyterian vacillation? Why can't Presbyterians be happy as Presbyterians? Why did they look to Episcopalians early in the nineteenth century and to Baptists today for their cultural cred? No ready answers but good questions.

The much-bruited "Benedict Option" championed by Rod Dreher was the subject of an entertaining afternoon discussion moderated by Jake Meador. Lots of smoke but still no fire. In short, it's not clear that a strategic withdrawal from the current socio-cultural milieu is feasible or advisable. (If you don't know what the Benedict Option is, check Dreher's blog. Or better yet, wait for his book.)

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