Vanderbilt graduate student Dylan Swift (foreground) and Smithville, Tenn., resident Merril Harris discussed religion and politics at Harris’ home in DeKalb County.
by Jim Patterson
SMITHVILLE, Tenn. – As chair of the Democratic Party in Smithville – not to mention choir director of the First United Methodist Church – Faye Fuqua generally knows what’s going on around town.
So when Dylan Swift, a researcher from Vanderbilt University, started popping up almost everywhere this summer, it aroused her curiosity.
“We had a rally, a Democratic rally, and I realized he was there,” Fuqua recalled. “Then at church I looked up and I saw he was there. Then I was at the Walnut Street Grill and he was there. And then I realized he was in the executive committee meeting of the Democratic Party. He’s not an imposing personality. He doesn’t impose himself on you, but I have learned that he finds out plenty.”
Swift, a Vanderbilt graduate student, is part of a team sent into the field by Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Religion and Culture to question residents about two topics supposedly not discussed in polite society: religion and politics.
The project, expected to continue for two more summers, is designed to give researchers enough time to gather good information about how local cultural and religious forces influence the political decisions of citizens. It also seeks to judge how local culture and politics lead to religious beliefs and practices.
The project is an attempt to stretch beyond more traditional research that tracks topics such as religion or politics without taking on the complex questions of how one influences the other.
In addition to Smithville, researchers worked in Clarksville, Dyersburg and Morristown, Tenn., and in the Edgehill and North Nashville neighborhoods in Nashville. Towns and neighborhoods were selected to represent the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of Tennessee.
“It’s a temptation to do studies quickly so results can be compiled and then you can move on to the next stage, but we think something valuable can be lost when you hurry,” said William Partridge, professor of human and organizational development and anthropology and a co-director of the Religion and Politics study group at the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture. “People don’t open up until you spend time with them and build trust,” he said.
Merril Harris, a Smithville woman who cooperated with the study, puts it another way: “They came in and respected the community and appreciated the people, and went to places and were friendly and talked about their families and talked about other things, and then people said, ‘Yeah, we can tell these people stuff.’ (It’s) because we can trust them. It’s not so much trust that they won’t get us in trouble, but trust them to respect us.”
In Smithville and DeKalb County, Swift and colleague Diana Jones found “a really cool little town,” Jones said. The town is divided between “top of the hill” and “under the hill” residents, with the former being the socially conventional and socially prominent crowd, and the latter less wealthy and dotted with less conventional types. Several countercultural enclaves are set outside the town in the DeKalb County countryside.
There is little or no public friction between the groups, helped by a strong belief in privacy. Some residents illustrated this by proudly relating how Union and Confederate soldiers lived side-by-side in the area both prior to and after the Civil War and were even treated in the same hospitals during the war.
“There is so much diversity and depth, all in this little space,” Swift said. “So much heartfelt good intention and authenticity.”
Other research groups found different situations.
A researcher working in North Nashville found little evidence of any central community, outside of the neighborhood’s churches, whose most influential members no longer live in the neighborhood. In Clarksville, near Fort Campbell, Ky., researchers found a staunchly conservative environment where questioning authority is almost never openly done.
Center for the Study of Religion and Culture officials believe more nuanced results will come as the project continues.
“We see this project as an experiment in more effective listening, where we take people as they are instead of trying to shove them into pre-made categories,” said Doug Knight, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture and professor of Hebrew Bible. “Based on this start, we expect ever more valuable insights to emerge as the study matures.”
Harris, an “under the hill” resident of Smithville, thinks the study is doing more than challenging stereotypes about small-town life.
“Dylan and Diana are kind of like ambassadors, along with the project,” Harris said. “I think equally important is breaking through stereotypes that people in small towns have about people in big cities, and especially universities, which is that they’re standoffish and always rushing and not interested in anybody.”