There nonetheless remains a fundamental difference between northern and southern versions of religious tolerance. In the North people are wont to say, “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship him in ours.” This delightful formulation says, in effect, that since religion is of little consequence anyway, why argue? In contrast, the southern version, well expressed in an old joke, says: “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship him in His.” From the early days of the Republic, when the Baptists led the fight for religious freedom and the separation of church and state, white southerners have done rather well in living together with mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s religious views. Always reminding themselves of human frailty, they are perfectly tolerant of some damned fool’s right to choose eternal damnation. But they are not about to pretend that they regard another’s religion as intrinsically equal to their own.
“Prejudice,” like “discrimination” and “tradition,” is a positive word in the southern lexicon, much as it is a dirty word in the liberal lexicon that prevails in academia…It rests upon a belief in an omnipotent God who necessarily can only be approached through a faith that requires community-grounded prejudices and apparently nonscientific modes of discrimination. This viewpoint warns against the unforeseen and often destructive results of social experiments that derive from an appeal to abstract reason—in effect, to ideological constructs. We might recall, for example, that “reason” in the guise of the most advanced scientific thought contributed to the pernicious triumph of racist thought in the nineteenth century. The religiously orthodox Old South, in contradistinction to the religiously liberal Northeast, stood on its prejudice in favor of a literal reading of the Bible’s account of the monogenesis of the human race and rejected scientific racism. Generally, this view of prejudice says that a community’s historically developed sense of right and wrong should be permitted to defy the latest fashions in reasoned speculation until they are empirically established.