Allen Tate’s “Remarks on the Southern Religion” (his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand) was a plea for the recovery of a humane social order. Nourished by daily labors in the fields, the agrarian community not only produced a more stable and wholesome environment for families and workers than industrialism could offer, but an agrarian community was also more conducive to religious and moral living. Farming, by its very nature, is a communal act: The experience of tilling the soil and harvesting crops fosters a sense of self-sacrifice and an attachment to a shared community.
Genuine cultural renewal, Tate believed, could not take place without appreciating the agrarian worldview—grounded in a connection to the soil and love for the Creator that was increasingly less palpable to his generation. At the end of the 20th century, even the memory of such an existence is quickly fading.
For Tate, the root of the problem was simple: New England (or, more specifically, the Massachusetts Bay settlement and the subsequent religious and political developments in American life) had crowded out the agrarian alternative from public discourse. To the 12 Southerners who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand, the American political, religious, and social experience largely stemmed from Puritan New England. In the hands of the divines, the “Puritan ethic” was incorporated into the American understanding of politics.
The New England ethic eventually developed into a civil theology which accorded special status to the American regime. America was regarded as the “New Israel,” a providential gift offered to the world, a city on a hill, a light amidst the darkness of political despotism. However, alongside New England, there arose a less dogmatic and more explicitly pastoral America, one associated with the other great colonial settlement, Jamestown, which was founded more than 20 years before the Massachusetts Bay colony.
The Southern agrarian tradition produced a very different understanding of religion and politics. Against the tendency to endorse a theocratic and unitary form of life, the Southern experience accommodated divergent theological and political understandings of order. Liberty was conceived in corporate terms that included the family and community. While New England enforced rigorous moral codes, the Southern colonies were more dependent upon the English model of ecclesiastic and civil subsidiarity, relying on those closest to the situation to provide order and preside over the deliberation of disputes. In essence, the religious and political developments within the South were founded upon a spirit of localism. For example, the movement to establish state-sponsored churches met with great success in New England, while in the South a decentralized theory of control and the habit of localism in matters of church and state ensured greater autonomy and forbearance between the associations of the faithful and governing authorities.
As M.E. Bradford explained, the Southern “spirit” looked to Eden after the Fall as a model, with “the best of the gifts of this life,” believing that a fruitful social and political existence was possible only when “pursued with prudence, energy, honor, and regard for a wise prescription.” Contrary to the New England understanding of precision in all religious and political arrangements, the Southern agrarian worldview identified the ancient imperfections of civilization with the need for constant improvement and refinement within human nature. A society grounded upon historical reality was less likely to be distorted by ideology; conversely, it was also more reluctant to reform the defects of a worldview inherited from previous generations. Distant and overbearing sources of ecclesial and political authority were viewed with skepticism.
From the colonial period, we can witness the divergence of two understandings of religion and politics, prompting historian Nathan Hatch to suggest that one “could draw upon precious few common traditions in defining their Americanness.” John Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson and an important model of statesmanship for the Agrarians, eloquently defended the Southern worldview in response to a confidant’s query about his attendance at a religious gathering:
I was born and baptized in the Church of England. If I attend the Convention at Charlottesville, which I rather doubt, I shall oppose myself then and always at every attempt at encroachment on the part of the church, the clergy especially, on the rights of conscience. I attribute, in a very great degree, my long estrangement from God to my abhorrence of prelatical pride and puritanical preciseness; to ecclesiastical tyranny. . . . Should I fail to attend, it will arise from a repugnance to submit the religion, or church, any more than the liberty of my country, to foreign influence. When I speak of my country, I mean the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was born in allegiance to George III; the bishop of London . . . was my diocesan. My ancestors threw off the oppressive yoke of the mother country, but they never made me subject to New England in matters spiritual or temporal; neither do I mean to become so, voluntarily.
Randolph affirmed, as would Tate and the other Agrarians a century later, the vision of a moral regime based upon subsidiarity in political and religious concerns. Subsidiarity served to divide public authority and political power, helping to perpetuate the republic. Yet it was dependent upon the virtue of the citizenry. The inculcation of virtue required a sustained effort to allow each generation to hear the “voice of tradition,” as Patrick Henry urged. If citizens failed to “inform posterity,” social and political life would suffer the consequences of a collective loss of memory and purpose.
Tate and the Agrarians also urged a spirit of prudence toward adopting radical innovation. They accepted the imperfections of American society and acknowledged the decline of religious faith and the concomitant growth of governmental power.
Even though the Agrarians represented many theoretical positions and geographical regions, they were united by their opposition to consolidation, and insisted upon protecting a decentralized, group-oriented society and preserving America’s republican roots.
As an agrarian republican, Tate recognized that, if government could not be restricted and faith encouraged, America would lose her liberty. Tate also appreciated the limits of human experience, acknowledging the shortcomings of his own perspectives and disdaining utopianism. The South had lost its heroic struggle partly because it separated its religion from its politics. In fact, Tate’s essay rightly notes that tradition, devoid of the impact of religion, tends to promote violence rather than spiritual empowerment. Tate’s own life, his political and spiritual confusion, bore witness to his inability to overcome just such a struggle.
Today, the Agrarians’ devotion to the preservation of an inherited worldview and way of life serves as a remarkable testimony for the rising generation. At a time when efforts to create and impose a false and destructive sense of community are widespread, we should revisit the Agrarian defense of an older, organic social order.
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