For me, going to my home county is an occasion for culinary culture shock, because middle-class people there simply do not have the same outlook on eating – especially for their children – as middle-class people do in my liberal city. Put plainly, people eat whatever they want, and lots of it, without giving it a second thought. More to my point here, they see the idea that one ought to care about such things as a sign of effete, high-handed liberalism.
It comes as news to my churchgoing conservative friends here in Coastal Liberal Land that making sure your kids limit sugary snacks and junk food is something only liberals care about. None of us are what you’d call foodies, and none of us go to the gym. It’s just understood that living responsibly, especially in a culture that celebrates the abolition of limits, requires a great deal of vigilance, especially when it comes to child-raising. That’s why though fasting is not really a part of American religious life today, there is still among my conservative friends real moral awareness of a religious duty to live a self-disciplined life, and to avoid the sin of gluttony. Why is the South – the most culturally conservative part of the country, in most respects, especially in Christian piety – so thoughtlessly permissive about eating?
I think this question is actually much larger than the pseudonymous author realizes. But I'll venture a few guesses based on my own experience and observations.
The predominant culture of the suburban and rural south is evangelical protestantism in its various forms. Yes, I meant to say the predominant culture because I think that actually describes it more accurately than saying the predominant religion or spiritual tradition. By which I mean this: Christianity, for many in the south, is really more a matter of identity than of serious introspection, personal growth, or religious practice. This is not to say that there aren't many, many people for whom it is all of those things, and quite profoundly--there are--but I'm talking about a substantial portion, if not a majority for whom it is not (and I would be willing to bet many self-identifying southern evangelicals would share that assessment.)
Evangelicals--and again, I am really talking more culture than theology, here--place an inordinate emphasis on conversion. Indeed, the most effective (or at least the most celebrated) evangelists are the ones with the most dramatic conversion narratives. It's all well and good to listen to someone who spent years in seminary discourse at length about universal brotherhood or the importance of charity, but man if you've got an ex-drunk fornicator whom Jesus personally snatched from the jaws of hell--that's really something! They also tend to have tremendously puritanical views on lifestyle generally, but particularly on the matters of alcohol and sex. In other words, the predominant culture tends to frown on two of the most common (and effective) ways that humans have blown off steam and sought comfort for pretty much the entire history of civilization. I'll leave it to another time to speculate about why, but the point is that you have a worldview that really lends itself to living life at the extremes. You're a sinner or a saint. (Actually, you're all sinners, but if you've been saved, you're supposed to do your absolute damned best to live as a saint would.)
Very little room is left for moderation in this worldview. "Purity" is the watchword, particularly with regard to sexuality. Serial, committed monogamy outside of marriage is viewed as equivalent to rampant promiscuity, as adultery committed against god and your intended spouse-to-be. Masturbation is really just as much of an offense against purity, since it tends to involve fantasizing, which is lust, which is--and this is in the Bible--effectively the same thing as the act itself, as far as your soul goes.
(And of course, god help you if your preference is for anything other than sanctified, married, procreative penis + vagina sex...)
And on and on...
So what does all of this have to do with food?
Well, perhaps because in the times the various components of the New Testament were written, a world in which food was hyper-abundant to even the relatively poor was unimaginable, the teachings of Jesus and Paul are pretty mum on the question of sensible eating. Ergo, the human impulse towards indulgence gets funneled into what is readily available and no one (except those damn liberal hippy organic food nazis that live in the cities) is going to judge you for: food.
There's certainly more to it than that, but I think this aspect of things gets overlooked too often.