Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Role of religion in the South often confuses Northerners

Growing up, I had a pretty simplistic view of religion. Based on the limited experience I had with post-Vatican II Catholicism, which seemed mostly accepting of other faiths, I assumed that religion was a big, happy endeavor that embraced all other views.

How little I really knew.

In New York City, houses of worship of all different persuasions existed in close proximity. Down the street from us was a Protestant church (in whose large and verdant front yard – which we called the “churchyard” — the neighborhood kids would play), and one time my parents took me to visit a relative and I saw a building in the middle of the block with strange writing on the facade. That was a synagogue, my mother said, where Jewish people went to their religious services.

Most of what I knew about Islam was about terrorism and war, unfortunately, and all I knew about atheism was that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a bad person who hated religion.

Again, this was when I was young and my views had not encountered the realities of the world yet.

New York City, and especially my world as a child and young teenager, did not seem to be the most hospitable place for fundamentalist Christians, and while I encountered Catholics of varying degrees of devotion I never ran into people who were really “out there” religiously. Our role wasn’t to convert others, I was taught in Catholic school. We were to live good lives and be examples of goodness for others. It was up to the priests to bring new believers into the fold, mostly through infant baptism.

So you have to believe that it was an unbelievable culture shock for me when I finished Parris Island – where religious belief was mostly a defense against the boot camp environment – and found myself in Millington, Tenn. In the South, religion was not only taken a lot more seriously, but the dividing lines were much clearer. The notion of ecumenicalism was dismissed as a heresy of the first order. There was only one true religion: the one that the speaker was promulgating. All else was heresy, and if you believed the speaker there was plenty of it going on, even among those who professed themselves as Christian believers.

A joke I heard one time gave the situation a lighter touch. A man was walking through a tiny Southern town and noticed two churches, the First Baptist and the Second Baptist church. He asked a passing citizen what the difference was, and the citizen said, “One says there ain’t no hell, and the other says the hell there ain’t.”

I began exploring churches outside Catholicism, and found that it was routine for preachers in sermons to declare all Catholics to not be Christians and, worse, bound for hell. Fundamentalists would insist that the city was full of other fundamentalist churches whose congregations were all going “straight to hell” for mistakes in doctrine, practice or belief.

Declaring someone not a Christian seemed to have more power if that person actually thought he was a Christian.

My first encounter with the fundamentalist Christian mindset was at a place in Millington dubbed “Nothing to sell. Just a place to sit and talk.” It turned out to be a storefront church, and the minister insisted to me that Catholicism just was not proper Christianity. It was evil, he said, and I was going to hell with all my dead relatives. The time was late 1978, and I was advised that the world could end before reveille and I’d be in hell because I didn’t accept Jesus.

Scattered around the barracks at the Navy base were the famous “Jack Chick tracts” that detailed the horrors of Catholicism, the evils of ecumenicalism and the awfulness of tolerance. From Darwin to Islam and everywhere in between, every other belief was derided as wrong, and its practitioners hellbound.

I decided it was all bogus, and then fell in with the Southern Baptists at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. Their servicemen’s fellowship was, again, pitched as a low-pressure environment, but you soon found out that they were dead serious about converting you. They used girls as the lure and then pulled them away.

The interesting thing was that the second time I was told everything, I believed it and even was baptized on TV.

A while later, I was walking past the storefront church and another minister told me, “I used to go to Bellevue Baptist Church, and you know what? I was going straight to hell.”

So Northerners need to realize that the Southern declaration that someone is not a true Christian is just a rhetorical device to set someone apart from the rest of the “good” people.

Of course, Mormons have always been a target of this “not a Christian” rhetoric because their beliefs are kind of way out there. I remember as a kid seeing Sunday inserts and advertisements in the newspaper detailing how the LDS church taught values and morality, and it was not uncommon to have the missionaries ring the doorbell at our house in Queens.

But even we thought the Mormon setup was weird and wanted nothing to do with it. In my family, religion was a personal matter – so long as you didn’t stray from Catholicism.

While we like to talk about progress, in the United States we are obsessed with the notion that our elected officials must, must, must be at least outwardly religious, even if they just “became” religious to further their political ambitions. When you consider the number of “out” nonbelievers at all levels of elected office, you realize how far the U.S. has to go to match the rest of the world.

Even expressing support for those who are not believers is a political risk, and candidates who eventually face the religion question often botch their answer, or just reply with the faith of their childhood, even if they haven’t been active in decades.

The trouble is that since being “active” in a religious organization is a sign of morality and decency, the incentive to lie is always present. True, someone who portrays himself as “devout” can often be a target – if the religion they’re devout in is Islam, for example – but it’s a way to punt on the question and hope it goes away.

While we nonbelievers like to be idealists and believe that people will make the rational choice in an election, the harsh reality is that many people will vote based on the answer to the religion question.

Like many others from the North but seeking a life in the South, I found the way religion was practiced in the South to be strange and discriminatory against minorities and nonbelievers. As I’ve seen, not much has changed in the more than 25 years since I’ve moved to Florida.

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October 30, 2011 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , , , , ,

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