A Tricoastal Woman: Where Do You Go to Church?

Henry VIIII 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.



A Tricoastal Woman: Where Do You Go to Church? — 14 Comments

  1. Good essay!

    Allowing religious groups to buy communication licenses back in the Nixon de-regulation regime was the beginning of the end of our political democracy >>>> separation of church and state, leading to the christo-fascist-corporate coup d’etat (with the help of the NRA and the other usual suspects).

    • I’ve been proud of the Episcopal Church during these years. It has taken strong stands for justice and diversity, and prevailed against its own right wing. Some other denominations could learn from its example.

      • Yeah–St. Wilfrid’s out here does terrific outreach, especially with marginalized groups like trans people and the homeless. Back in the day, they worked hard for AIDS education and relief. Total opposite of politicians touting their several marriages (real great vow keeping, there), grabbing women by their privates, never actually setting foot in a church except for campaign purposes, nor knowing anything about the tenets of the religion they are bloviating away about in soundbites.

    • Wher’s a “like” button when you need one. 🙂 I think you’re absolutely right, and while I do believe that there are plenty of good people out there who associate themselves with what is technically the “faith of the cross”, I tend to flinch, these days, when an American leads by describing themselves as “Christian” – particularly since none of their actions actually show that. There’s a kind of “Christian” who seems to think that it’s like pinning on a badge – put a little bright enamel cross on your lapel and walk out into the world, and – I don’t know – everything is forgiven…? Deus lo volt?… All those pious fools who insist that Christianity is such a lamb obnoxiously fail to address the Crusades, and the Inquisition, and Aryan supremacy…

      • Fortunately, I know a number of Christians who act in accordance with principles like “love your neighbor as yourself.” But the ones in public life who think they have the one true answer and are determined to cram it down our throats (or uteruses) drive me nuts.

  2. I’m a proud Episcopalian, neé Methodist.

    One of my favorite religious ironies is when my English atheist friends puff up about Christianity and particularly what Americans have done to it, with a proud, “I am an atheist, but I am a Church of England atheist.” [drop mic]

    • In personal terms, I’m probably a secular Zen Buddhist (though since I’m not affiliated with any Zen group, they may not approve of my saying that). However, I think I could claim to be an Episcopal atheist without too much irony. I am proud of the Episcopal Church, still enjoy the ritual, and think that a lot of the teachings of Jesus make sense. It’s just the idea of God that doesn’t make sense to me.

  3. I’m Serbian Orthodox. I barely ever go to church as such mainly because there ISN’T one within reach – there’s a Greek Orthodox in the town where I live but it isn’t the same thing at all despite the shared name. And besides, there’s only one church where God really lives – Saborna Crkva in Novi Sad. (So there. 🙂 ) I carry a little gold cross in my purse because my grandmother gave it to me and half its value is that it is associated with HER. God is second, here. I don’t know where I’d put myself in terms of religious hierarchy but my point of view tends to align with the idea that I am more spiritualist than religious – I tend to believe that there is something out there that might be greater than ourselves but the dogma that has accreted on that higher power like barnacles on a ship’s prow tends to annoy and distance me from that bigger thing rather than make me closer to it. In other words, I may believe in God but I often don’t believe nearly enough in his clergy. And quite honestly I am closer to my idea of God while in a grove or redwoods than I have EVER been in ANY church I have EVER entered…

  4. I grew up in a rural part of Southern Ireland, which is predominantly Catholic. Protestants tended to be either strong farmers or Anglo-Irish, the latter being almost entirely invisible. I didn’t realise that America owes a big part of its Evangelical tradition to the Ulster-Scots until recently*, but I remember being struck by the proliferation of chapels, biblical-based signage etc, on crossing the border into Northern Ireland. The writer C.S. Lewis was an Ulsterman (albeit an Anglican) and I wonder if this is why he’s so popular with American Evangelicals – because they share a certain commonality?

    * the book was ‘Deer Hunting with Jesus’.

    • I’m not sure most U.S. evangelicals know that Lewis was an Ulsterman. I didn’t (but I’m obviously not evangelical). When I was young, I recall my mother — who was in no way an evangelical — being very interested in Lewis’s theological writing. I suspect the current evangelical fascination may have more to do with the Narnia books and the movies based on them, but that’s just a thought.