Flannery O’Connor famously called our South a “Christ-haunted” place. If so, he haunts it indiscriminately, whether you want him to or not, whether you spend your Sunday mornings with the New York Times or with the Pentecostals. He’s in our songs, our history, our family reunions, and he’s on our interstate billboards. Exactly why he haunts the South is the question that launched a thousand doctoral dissertations. But here’s this column’s working theory: He haunts the South because sin haunts the South. Our past, whether preserved in the marble of a hundred Confederate memorials or in the photos on our shelves, is heavy with guilt. And wherever guilt is, you won’t find religion far behind. Why does The Oxford American need a religion column? Because the South is a religious place.
That doesn’t mean that our treatment of religion should feel compulsory, like talking to your aunt’s new husband at the wedding. And neither should it feel like a bowdlerization or sheepish apology made to the more sophisticated cousin in town from up north. Of all the cultural touchstones of the South—its music, its food, its way of being—religion is the least transferable. After all, anyone can buy a banjo and learn the chords to “I’ll Fly Away,” but it is that mix of communal, cross-generational, burden-bearing, and the feeling that, somehow or another, the cards have been stacked against you that adds a unique slant to the pulpits of the South. That’s an ingredient of Southern life that even unbelievers can savor. Think of religion in the South as your collard greens: a dish you don’t prefer but which you recognize as vital to the region, one that you even try again from time to time.
When a Florida pastor starts threatening to burn a Koran on national television, as happened a couple of years ago, there should be more varied sounds from our creative classes than a single, unvaried, skirt-clutching shriek. After all, isn’t such a man an emblem of the same “Weird Old South” whose passing we are constantly lamenting? Shouldn’t someone stand and say: “Here, amid all our fast-food restaurants and chain-discount stores, here, at last, is a bona fide Southern idiot, an idiot’s idiot, unique to us and to this place alone.” What would Faulkner or O’Conner make of such a man? They might think him a fool, but would be so eager to write a story about him that they wouldn’t have time to do much shrieking. After all, nothing delights a certain kind of Southern writer quite so much as scandalizing polite company.
But who is the polite company anymore? Certainly not your Baptist grandmother. Her DIRECTV subscription long ago explained that her assumptions and beliefs were past their expiration date. She no longer blushes at fornication and drunkenness. She knows that she is alone in the world and waits expectantly only for death to vindicate her. Who is the polite company that our creative impulses should probe and tease? Well, us of course. The educated. The literate. The cultured. The ones who wish the South were like Brooklyn, only with better corn bread.
The Oxford American serves a unique function in the South. A large part of its content is, of course, given over to the arts and letters. But the magazine is more than just The New Yorker with a Southern twist—there’s some of the old National Geographic or LIFE spirit in it, too—a sense of holding the lens up to the face of a place so we can get a proper look at it, warts and all. It’s that role, as well as the job of mining Southern culture for every strange, backwoods prophecy our arts and letters have produced over the last three centuries, that I see this column helping to fill.
Religion in the South is not, for the most part, particularly quaint anymore. Not much remains of the picturesque, country churches with tall, white steeples inhabited by poor, honest country folk hymning in their pews. And what does remain of it is more than proportionally represented by the photojournalistic efforts of other periodicals. What the South has instead are the regular denominational players, with all their quirks and curses, and a loose confederation of anti-denominational evangelicals ranging from California-style mega-churches to small house-churches filled with a few families who home-school their children from infancy. They meet in movie theaters, school cafeterias, and converted factories. They’re not quaint, but they’re real and, in their own way, uniquely Southern. Well, not the mega-churches, they’re pretty much still Californian.
I hope in this column to give them all their due. A religion column won’t have the natural rhythm of new album releases or book publishings that supply our other columns with material. The material here will be a mix of commentary (the Southern Baptist Convention is poised to elect its first black president), from historical (what led the Southern Agrarian Allen Tate to convert to Catholicism in his old age?) to ruminative (where have all the church cemeteries gone?). To thread the needle of perfect objectivity and neutrality is impossible. I have allegiances, just as you do. Where I hope to add something to the discussion is in my appreciation for when religion stumbles into the public square. When I’m most inspired to pick up pen and paper is when the one stumbling speaks with an accent that sounds like home.
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