I grew up in the Bible Belt, so it’s not surprising that so many of my youthful memories are tied to religion. A certain kind of Christianity was integrated into the culture so thoroughly that it was impossible to avoid.
The public school in Friendswood, Texas, didn’t hold dances, because the two biggest churches in town – the Quakers and the Baptists – did not hold with dancing. Opposition to this policy also had religious overtones: our Episcopal Church started holding dances on a regular basis.
My parents were among those who made the dances happen, because they believed that it was important to give kids something to do to keep them from getting pregnant. (The Episcopal Church also did some sex education, a subject neglected in the public schools.) Given my experience in high school, my parents were on to something: all the girls who “had to get married” attended fundamentalist churches.
The Boy Scouts also started holding dances in Friendswood, and the school eventually gave in. Meanwhile, in Alvin, where I went to high school, our principal kept trying to roll back the number of dances. He was Church of Christ, a church that was even stricter than Baptists. It didn’t allow girls and boys to go swimming together.
At one point in junior high school, I regularly argued about religion with a friend who was Church of Christ. I recall pulling out my Bible to make a point, only to learn that quotes from the Old Testament didn’t count. The Church of Christ only followed the New Testament. If you wanted to catch them in a contradiction – and, of course, the Bible is full of contradictions – you had to pull it out of the New Testament.
When I moved up to Wichita Falls, Texas, to run a legal services office, I found that the first question people asked when I met them was “Where do you go to church?” (In contrast, in Washington, DC, the first question is always “What do you do?”)
One of the advantages of being raised Episcopalian is that I could claim that denomination without getting myself in any trouble. Members of other Protestant denominations tended to assume that it was a waste of time to try to convert Episcopalians. And if the inquirer happened to also be an Episcopalian, they wouldn’t be surprised if they never saw me in church. They’d simply assume I was a “Christmas and Easter” Episcopalian.
By accident, I did stumble into one religious advantage in Wichita Falls. When I first moved up there, I went with my friend Susan’s grandmother to the Presbyterian Church one Sunday. After the service, she introduced me to one of the state judges.
I never lost a case in that man’s court after that. I’m pretty sure he thought I was Presbyterian.
The “where do you go to church” phenomenon has not disappeared. It may even be stronger today. My sweetheart’s daughter ran into it when she lived for a time in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her solution was to tell everyone who asked that she was Jewish. That worked to keep most people from trying to convert her, but she did run into one person who tried to bring her into their tiny church because they considered Jews the first Christians.
When someone asks me what Episcopalians believe in, I have some trouble answering, because my fundamental understanding of the different forms of U.S. Protestant religions has more to do with what you are allowed or forbidden to do. Episcopalians are allowed to drink, dance, and smoke (though these days smoking may no longer be as accepted as it was back in the day). Moderation in all things was our motto.
There was a summer camp song about this, sung to the tune of “God Bless America”:
I am an Anglican.
I am P.E. (Protestant Episcopal)
Not a high church or a low church.
I am Protestant and Catholic and free.
Not a Presby,
Nor a Lutheran,
Nor a Baptist, white with foam.
I am an Anglican.
Via media. Boom, boom.
Via media is Latin for the middle way, I think.
I sometimes explain that the Episcopal Church exists because the King of England (Henry VIII, to be precise) wanted to divorce his wife. I learned this fact when I researched the church in a Methodist Vacation Bible School I attended while spending the summer at my grandmother’s. Despite that provenance, it is, in fact, true.
This particular meditation on religion was brought on by reading an essay by Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, called “Billy Graham at the Vel’ d’Hiv’”. (The Vel’ d’Hiv’ was a stadium in Paris.)
I am reading Barthes because I read another essay recommending the ideas contained in an essay he wrote on professional wrestling as a way to understand the current U.S. president. That essay appears in a collection of his pieces on myth called Mythologies. Despite the fact that the essays were mostly written in the 1950s, all the ones I have read so far are still all too relevant.
Barthes certainly nailed the Billy Graham phenomenon. He begins the essay with a suggestion that “it is entirely regrettable that a Papuan witch doctor [sic] was not at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ to describe the ceremony presided over by Dr. Graham under the name of an evangelizing campaign. There is a splendid piece of anthropological raw material here.” (I love the idea of someone from a group that has been studied ad nauseam by anthropologists doing the commentary on western religion.) Barthes goes on to compare Graham to a popular hypnotist.
He does not mince words. “If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid: the Message stuns us by its platitude, its childishness.”
Barthes says that Graham’s goal was to awaken France. “The ‘conversion’ of Paris would obviously have the value of a worldwide example: Atheism defeated by Religion in its own lair.”
He ends: “ ‘To awaken’ France from atheism is to awaken her from the Communist fascination. Billy Graham’s campaign has been merely a McCarthyist episode.”
This is a 1950s reaction and we are facing slightly different political extremism at present, but the words still ring true. One wonders what Barthes would have said to the fundamentalist preachers who followed from Graham, particularly the virulent haters like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, not to mention the out-and-out crooks.
I am no longer religious, but I still have a spiritual streak. I like ritual and music and the calm center that can come from those practices. I have always thought the Bible Belt/Billy Graham approach to religion lacked that spirituality, which is, for me, the only thing that makes religion worthwhile.