My daddy told me the two things that can end a friendship quick or get you horsewhipped are talking religion and politics. He said both are inspired by man, judged by man, manipulated by man, and man will tar and feather you if you dare stray too far from the collective views of either. Therefore, in today’s world where manipulation often seems to be a mainstay of politics and religion, I have chosen to ignore his good advice and weigh neck deep into muddy waters in which a more sensible man would strive to avoid. Sensible or not, when it comes to sharing my opinion, my attempts at wit or even seriousness sometimes result in stepping, falling, or diving head first into controversy. I can assure you though that controversy is merely a byproduct of my aversion to any advice other than my own, and that my opinions are basically harmless and generally fall in line with the observations of a more sensible and cautious man.
From the time I was a boy, I have always put faith in God above religion since religion is often agnostic at best, and I have always put common sense above politics since politics is a befuddled mess at best. However, I do not plan to belabor either point since I doubt very seriously if God intended life to be about religion or politics. He is far more interested in mankind learning to be less judgmental and more human toward each other. To that end, he made animals pretty much self-sufficient since he knew he would be spending a lot of overtime refereeing humans. I have never heard animals, such as dogs and cats, complain about being short changed though; they are as happy as a two-tailed skunk to have been spared the torment of humanity. They do not have to answer to the IRS, pay rent or a house payment, worry about money for their puppies’ braces, wind up in divorce court, worry about who is telling the truth – Fox or CNN, worry about escalating gas prices, worry about where to send their little ones to school, or any other number of worries that torment humans daily and throughout their lives. That is why you will find more dogs and cats in heaven than their masters. Dogs and cats truly possess the key to Heaven; they are innocent to a fault, at peace with who and what they are, and non-judgmental. I have known dogs and a few cats that no doubt made it to heaven based on those merits, but like Mark Twain I am inclined to believe humans enter heaven more as a favor than merit.
In spite of odds often stacked against them, humans never stop trying to claim their Heavenly home, especially in the South. Take a drive through any town in Mississippi or any other Southern state and you will most likely find a Walmart, a bank, a dollar store, a convenience store, and a Churches Fried Chicken. What you are guaranteed to find in a Southern town is a church on just about every corner. In fact, churches probably out number all other buildings five to one. From small wood frame white structures to super structures of steel and masonry that cover several football fields, churches are readily available throughout Southern communities to provide the people of God sanctuary from the world and a direct connection to Heaven.
The church is the religious, social, and political center of the Southern community. Recipes, gossip, and political advice are exchanged every Sunday morning on the steps of the church house. Every aspect of a Southerner’s life is influenced by the church. More than likely, if you grew up in the South, your first date was with someone you met at church, your first real boyfriend or girlfriend was someone introduced to you at church, your first marriage was someone you proposed to or proposed to you from your church, and your first divorce was caused by someone who attended the church down the street. Also, when it comes to the church, Southerners understand that attending church regularly not only keeps them in touch with God, but it greatly increases the likelihood that they know everybody and everything about everybody.
Just as the church greatly influenced a young man or young woman’s first significant other, the church also more than likely has greatly influenced their politics. The biggest political influences in the life of a true Southerner are his grandfather, father, Sunday school teacher, and pastor. Now I am not neglecting the contributions of mothers and grandmothers, quite often they are just as influential in the family politics as the men, but they generally tend to be a little more subtle in their approach to politics. It is because of this subtleness that Southern women are often given credit as being instrumental in the development of sneaky politics as an art form. To be brutally honest, although the men often pray in church the loudest and politically pound their chests with the virility of a Congo gorilla, when mama speaks, the men listen whether it is about politics, religion, or mowing the lawn.
It can be argued that there are two churches in the South – the one reigned over by God and the Bible, and the one ruled over by the Constitution of the United States. However, in reality there is no separation between the two for most Southerners. Although many people believe the Constitution of the United States calls for the separation of church and state, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the United States Constitution nor does the separation of religion and politics actually exist in the South. Throughout the South, religion and politics are closely joined at the hip, and nowhere is that more evident than in the pews and parking lots of Southern churches come Sunday morning. It is often said, the road to getting elected in the South is through the pulpit. Simply put, more politics are discussed and political decisions both local and state are finalized in church parking lots on Sunday morning than take place in all the Southern capitals on a daily basis combined. You might say, the politics of the South are often conceived and baptized between the pews of the church house.
Although church and politics are crucial to the culture of the South, total love and respect for God and family are the glue that holds the South together. Anyone who thinks otherwise was not raised by a card carrying Southern mama and daddy. In the South, where children are taught to pray before they can talk, even fried chicken and guns come in second to God and family. That is not so strange when you consider Southerners pray before they sleep, they pray when they wake, they pray over every meal, they pray before every meeting and gathering, they pray at ball games (to hell with the American Civil Liberties Union), and often they pray about praying. Prayer is a way of life in the South. It is a distinguishing characteristic of a true Southerner who is taught from birth to forgive but never forget, and to always keep those who offend or wrong him in his prayers least they be forgotten.
Yes, prayer is extremely important in the South. Being brought up in a Southern Baptist home, I was brought up to believe that every prayer is an opportunity to deliver a non-believer to salvation, and therefore, every prayer is a mini sermon with your eyes closed. Of course, using the word “mini” in relationship to religion in the South is a contradiction of epic proportions. A prayer in the hands of a well-trained and articulate “good ole boy” Southerner can be an artistic marvel of rhetoric steeped in the juice of bread and butter pickles, or simply put, just about as long-winded as a two day hurricane. That is why if you have the slightest inkling that a Southern Baptist is about to break into prayer, you should make like a librarian and find a good book and settle in for the evening while they pray. Now, I am in no way trying to poke fun at something as serious as prayer; I am simply stating that sometimes the “good ole boys” do not know when to stop.
For a Southerner, prayer is a way to reach out to those around them, a way to announce to the world the severity of their religiousness, and a way to proclaim kinship to God. However, even in the South, prayer has changed dramatically over the years. When I was growing up in rural Mississippi, people prayed with reverence and awe before God. Today, they casually pray like they are talking to Uncle Jeb or Aunt Martha. They carry on prayers or conversations with God as though they are talking to a good buddy they just met in Walmart. Now do not get me wrong, I am not saying you won’t find God in Walmart. With the way tithing is going in churches nowadays, even God has had to embrace a rollback or two. Prayer is indeed important in the life of the Southerner, and it should never be taken lightly, but a little more emphasis on reverence certainly would not hurt. Getting caught up in the Holy Spirit is one thing, but carrying on like God is your “best bud” may be taking the spirit down a path it was not intended to go. Although intentions may be good, with the casual sometimes overly enthused theatrical way some people pray, I can envision them in the hereafter walking up to God and giving him a high five. I do not believe that would go over well at all.
Religious beliefs in general should never be taken lightly. They are important to Southerners who are often quick to share their beliefs, and sometimes even quicker to condemn those who dare not believe as they do. God is the commander-in-chief of the Southern way of life; he is a neighbor. In fact, by the way some folks in the South carry on; an outsider might assume God lives in the house next door. Who knows, in a world where many people routinely claim God speaks to them openly and directly every day, he might very well have bought a house down the street. Not that it is impossible, but I cannot help but wonder why he would trade a mansion and streets of gold for a three bedroom brick veneer house and streets of potholes?
Nevertheless, there are Southerners who believe God lives on a Southern plantation somewhere between Jackson, Mississippi and the Mississippi Guff Coast, and as a Southerner, I must confess – despite my skepticism – that makes perfect sense to me. You see, though I have never seen streets of gold anywhere in the South, I can truthfully say I have seen many hearts of gold throughout the South. Southerners are among the most charitable people in the world. Mississippi for example has the highest poverty rate of any state in the nation, yet Mississippi year after year leads the nation in charitable donations per capital income. The Bible is clear about heaven being in the heart, and that being the case; I have no problem believing God has a mansion somewhere in Mississippi.
Fried chicken, rolling hills, sugar white beaches, sunset in the Delta, catfish and seafood buffets fit for kings, down home family values, and the most beautiful women in the world make the South a paradise like no other in the world. A paradise celebrated every Sunday when millions of Southerners bow their heads in their church of choice to thank God for the blessing of being born Southern, and if they were not born Southern, bowing their heads to thank God for the wisdom they showed when they finally came to their senses and moved to the South. Simply put, despite all its faults and maybe even hypocrisies, the South equals Heaven on earth!
I love the South where on Sunday you will find Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Protestants, and a handful of others with one major worry on their minds. Will they get out of church in time to beat all the other churches to fried chicken at Miss Mary’s Cafe or steaks at the Golden Corral? Now I am not saying Southern stomachs are in competition with the glory of God on Sunday morning, but in the South behind God and family the soulful pleasures of a plate of fried chicken with mash potatoes and gravy have been known to get overly long winded preachers run out of town. As a people, our religious rituals may not always be exactly the same, and sometimes even our religious beliefs may vary slightly, but we are all united in our belief that God, family, prayer, and fried chicken are the cornerstones of paradise on earth – the cornerstones of the South. Pass the gravy please.
©Jack Linton, April 28, 2014