The cycles of history can be very interesting indeed. The American South is the home of America’s original sin. It is the one region of this nation that turned its back on the principles of the Founding and did so for decade after decade — imposing first the tyranny of slavery, then the oppression of Jim Crow. Even after the Civil War, the South was a virtual nation-within-a-nation, a world apart where only white citizens could fully enjoy the blessings of liberty.
And, make no mistake, the South paid for its sins. The Civil War decimated its male population and destroyed its economy. And then, when the rest of the nation raced ahead, industrializing and expanding at a breakneck pace, the South remained behind — the poorest American region, by far.
To grow up southern is to grow up keenly aware of this legacy. It’s so painful and so obviously and deeply wrong that it’s hard to stare it in the face. So even well-meaning people fall for Lost Cause mythologies. Young boys who grew up memorizing the names of battles and generals remembered Confederate courage but did not learn — and sometimes even denied — the horror that Confederate soldiers died defending.
Then it was as if history stopped at Appomattox. According to the stories, the noble men of the South furled their flags and returned home — ready to reconcile with the nation they fought. As in many good myths, there was a kernel of truth. Yes, the white men of the South often did reconcile with their Union foes. Yes, they did enlist and fight in often-disproportionate numbers in the American wars to come. But the southern stories elide the reign of terror against the region’s black citizens, a reign so oppressive that black Americans left the South in one of our nation’s great migrations — moving to regions that were often racist themselves but still provided far more opportunity and hope than the Mississippi Delta did.
I bring up this history because it makes the events of 2019 all that much more potent and poignant. Because if slavery and Jim Crow are America’s original sin, abortion is America’s second great sin. It’s a regime of mass death, empowered by a Supreme Court elite and sustained by a culture of exploitation and indulgence. It dehumanizes and destroys, often creating two victims in the process — the child who dies and the mother who is haunted by her tragic loss.
But in the national battle over America’s second sin, the geography is flipped. The moral virtue is reversed. The geography of the Civil War is repeating itself, but this time with the American South affirming the promise of the Founding — that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights, first among them a right to life. The key states of the American North are rejecting that truth, granting a woman the right to hire a doctor to kill her child right until the moment of birth.
In the first six months of this year, the core of the Old South passed a wave of bills protecting unborn life. There were heartbeat bills in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Missouri. Alabama passed an abortion ban. Tennessee passed a “trigger bill,” a law that will severely restrict abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Add to this southern bloc of states Ohio, with its heartbeat law, and there now exists an immense American region, spanning part of the Midwest and virtually the entire Deep South, that has united and declared with one voice, No more. They are opting out of the culture of death.
And what of the North? What of the righteous and courageous protagonists in the fight against slavery? New York and Illinois have led the way, liberalizing their abortion laws to such an extent that even viable unborn children can be killed on demand. Maine’s governor just signed a bill requiring public and private insurance policies to cover abortions, and Massachusetts lawmakers are considering expanding abortion access in their commonwealth.
For those keeping score: Abraham Lincoln’s state, and states that birthed some of the most thunderous advocates of abolition, are now circling their wagons around the modern barbarism of abortion.
Make no mistake, the mainstream media have taken notice — and sided decisively with the North. In May, the New York Times ran two lengthy essays decrying the alleged dark side of the pro-life wave. Columnist Ginia Bellafante inquired whether the South’s new abortion laws would undermine the entire project called the “New South” — the effort to create a region that is hospitable to all Americans while retaining the best elements of unique southern charm. Nashville-based opinion writer Margaret Renkl used Alabama’s attempt to impose prison sentences on doctors who commit unlawful abortions as an occasion to remark that she was “tempted to say there’s never been a worse time to be a sentient human being in the American South.” That was “not true,” she acknowledged, but it remains stunning that an act designed to protect life could help trigger such an extreme reaction.
It could well be that America is moving toward becoming a bifurcated nation once again. Instead of slave and free, it’s life and death. And in both instances, it is the Supreme Court — through Dred Scott, and through Roe — that backstops oppression and dehumanization.
And once again, divergent approaches to fundamental questions of human rights spring from increasingly divergent cultures. Much of it boils down to profound faith differences. According to Pew Research Center data, only 10 percent of New Yorkers are Evangelical Christians. Only 20 percent of Illinois citizens are Evangelical. But what of the numbers across the South? Alabama is 49 percent Evangelical, Mississippi is 41 percent, Tennessee is 52 percent, and Georgia is 38 percent.
While northern states are more Catholic, and the Catholic Church is doctrinally pro-life, Catholics themselves are far more likely than Evangelicals to be pro-choice. While the South is more secular than it used to be, religious faith still runs deep, and it will continue to run deep for the foreseeable future.
I was born in Alabama, the state that banned abortion. I lived for a time in Louisiana, a state that passed a heartbeat bill. I grew up in Kentucky, home of another heartbeat bill, and I now live in Tennessee, a state that recently passed a pro-life constitutional amendment. I’m a son of the South, and it’s deeply moving to me that, in this time and in this generation, a region and a culture responsible for so much hurt (and one that still struggles with the enduring impact of slavery and Jim Crow) is now standing up for the most vulnerable Americans.
Not long ago, I had a lengthy conversation with Georgia representative Ed Setzler, one of the sponsors of his state’s heartbeat bill, and he told me the explicit goal of the bill was to expand American liberty, to use the power of state law specifically to humanize the people whom the Supreme Court had dehumanized. This was the New South in action, repenting of America’s second sin.
Yet as he acted to humanize, his northern colleagues dehumanized. They denied the personhood even of a child who was fully capable of living outside the womb. The lesson here is clear. History has a legacy. Men and women can struggle for centuries with the consequences of grievous wrongs. But history is not always destiny. New generations can forge different paths. And in the South, the present generation is choosing to embrace the promise of the Founding.
All life is precious, and the Christians of the South are leading the nation in its defense.
This article appears as “The South Secedes from the Culture of Death” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.