COLUMN 116, APRIL 1, 2005
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
SUNDAY IN A RED STATE
If Jesus reappeared on earth tomorrow it would probably be at Daytona or a Cracker Barrel Restaurant.---Punk Wilson, local wiseass
Indeed, Cracker Barrel has to be the most appropriately named restaurant chain in America. The last time I entered one with an out-of-town black friend, nearly all heads turned in unison toward us. My friend took one look at the wall-to-wall porky white faces and said:
“Get me back to the fucking car. I can grab a happy
meal on the way out of Deliverance.”
Nevertheless, I’d be the
first to admit that the food at Cracker Barrel is damned good for a chain
restaurant … authentic white trash taters and beans. To be authentic Southern
food it has to be inauthentic in a trashy sort of way, but still flavorful, if
you know what I mean. It’s one of those things like serving store brand cola
with a tomato and mayonnaise white bread sandwich in the summer---authentic.
Anyway, if Cracker Barrel ever perfects a catfish batter the fare will be legit
honky soul food.
So I am at a Cracker Barrel
on the Virginia/West Virginia line with my minister brother following his Sunday
worship service this morning. Located not far from the church where Brother
preaches, the place is always jammed on Sundays with pie-and-coffee Christian
fundamentalists, plus a smattering of blue-collar Yankee tourists down from Pennsylvania to paw
over the gift shop’s Taiwanese hillbilly crafts and rebel flag beach towels.
customers, mostly beefy well-scrubbed
locals, are shaking hands and slapping backs as if they don’t see one another
three times a week in church:
“How ARE yall! My, my,
my, you look SO GOOD Sister Clark!”
As much as I love their
familiar ways, I’m sorry to say that I do not like fundamentalist Christians
much. Particularly in groups. They tend to pack up like wolves and become
hypocritical, mouthy and intolerant. It reminds me too much of myself when I’m
Even after all these years
I’m still a bit surprised my little brother is a preacher. He's not like that
at all---mouthy and hypocritical, I mean. I shouldn’t be surprised though. We
have any number of “brush preachers” in our family tree, Pentecostals and
Baptists mainly. And our parents did meet at a Billy Graham tent revival during
the Second World War. In my generation of Bageants however, the Holy Spirit
seems to swell through the decades like a fire shut up in the bones. At some
point in all their lives it bursts into the flame of conversion. Except for me.
I escaped the Christian
life almost 40 years ago to eat LSD, consider Buddhism and let a couple of
marriages go to hell. Eventually, to my family’s amazement and relief, I
managed to come to rest with a far better woman than I deserve, two dogs and
high enough blood pressure to keep me scared back a respectable distance from
the scotch bottle.
My brother’s church is
what is known as an “independent Baptist church.” Independent enough of your
world and mine that he says things like, “I helped cast out my first demon
yesterday, Joey. I wish you could have been there.” Actually, I do too.
Independent fundamentalist churches are wild and woolly places theologically,
whose characteristics and belief systems can accommodate just about anything
“Preacher Bob” or “Pastor Donnie” or preacher whomever can come up with
from misreading the Good Book.
The “clergy” arise from
within the church ranks and are usually poorly educated. (Hell they went to
public school in America, didn’t they?) This has always been true of American
fundamentalism since the backwoods stump church days, and it continues to
provide the nation with charismatic literalists whose reading and abstracting
ability is minimal to zilch. Combine that with 30 years of
Christian school growth, and you can begin to understand how we got in
such deep shit today…why so many states find themselves revamping their
educational systems so that the fables of Adam and Eve may replace Darwin and we
can all be reassured that David slew Goliath despite the complete lack of
evidence of either’s existence.
Yet, look across the
congregations of these churches and you see these aren’t bad people. They are
neither a minority nor a cult in this nation, given their millions, and are
simply what the ordinary Americans are today---working class people whose
interior lives were clobbered by the Twentieth Century. Unaware of it as they
are, theirs is part of a global revival of fundamentalism, which emerged
when triumphant materialism arrived in the wake of the enlightenment. Poor
dear enlightenment! So brief! Then smashed by two world wars, Verdun, Dresden,
Auschwitz, the gulags, nuclear weapons, impending ecological disaster…
Not that anyone in this church ever heard of the enlightenment.
Two generations of them were raised in Christian schools amid the
unyielding hostility and fear of the Cold War and declining real wages and
education. Is it any wonder they are so attracted to the Apocalypse both
materially and literally? From home as they know it in this world, you look out
the window what you see is the approaching end of the fucking world.
In response, they long ago collected themselves in what amount to
mental and theological compounds, built thousands of Christian
institutions and schools and trained two generations for a theocratic state.
Fundamentalist thinker Gary North announced decades ago, “We will train up a
generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral
law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get
busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which
finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."
Well, they’ve done it.
. .Meatloaf and pungent,
But returning to the
Cracker Barrel… Brother is
attacking his meatloaf and pungent, heavily peppered green beans with
heart-warming enthusiasm. Graying and handsome, his dark suit is stylish for a
preacher in his type of church. It being hunting season, he has launched into
deer-hunting story. Whenever he feels awkward with me he tells a hunting story.
Brother uses the same guns our daddy used---hell, it’s the same ones our
grandpap used. Like them, he is a hunter who puts at least two bucks and a doe
in the freezer every year and could probably bring home the same given only a
bag of rocks to hunt with. If there is a hunting gene, he’s got it. Ours is
the kind of family where the first question asked after the death of a father
is: “Who gets Daddys’ guns?” Alien
as that sounds to many of urban folks, millions of Americans will nod and smile
at the familiarity of that observation from their own family experience.
Deer hunting is the second religion of many red states and especially here in the Blue Ridge. The echoing crack of a distant deer rifle or the wild chilly smell of a deer hanging under a porch light bulb on a snowy night still bewitches me with the same mountain folk animism it did when I was a boy. But I have not hunted in twenty-five years and never expect to again. So my mind drifts as he talks of hunting. Through the window are bleak gray-brown ridges full of unseen hunters. Brother’s stalking of souls for Jesus is much like a deer hunt. Lots of quiet waiting for the exact moment of truth.
. .These churches
were so deeply shaped
by modern zealots
When I look at my brother,
a kind man, an essentially brave and hardworking one, exemplary of all those
things an American is supposed to be, I see that one of the biggest and most
overlooked political events in America is how millions of people such as him and
his flock were moved out of the apolitical camp into Christian activism. And
how, despite all their claims of independence, these churches were so deeply
shaped by modern zealots of the past thirty years.
Yet the churches are
unaware that the original source of their theological ideas is the dark, strange
coterie of reconstructionist Christians, who want to stone homosexuals, kill
disobedient children and build a theocratic state through the establishment of
“Biblical Law” in America.
(Go to www.theocracywatch.org
or read anything by scholar
of American fundamentalism Frederick
Clarkson.) Via Presbyterian
oriented educators, the Baptist school headmasters and pastors, and the
charismatic telecommunications system, the radicals have managed to shape
hundreds of thousands of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, as well as
many fundamentalist Baptists, not merely as voters, but as ideological activists
for a reconstructed "Biblical world view" in government, law,
education, the arts and foreign policy.
As Fred Clarkson puts it: “Whether it is Operation Rescue activists called to anti-abortion work because of Francis Schaeffer's books, or Pentecostals who responded to the politicizing ministry and electoral ambitions of Pat Robertson during the 1970s and 1980s, this radical radicalization of Protestants is one of the major stories of modern American politics.” Watching Brother mop up the last of his bean juice with his biscuit here at the Cracker Barrel, you would never guess he is at the center of such a storm. Yet he understands that he and his kind are at a pivotal point, thought they would put it in terms of the hand of Satan in the world instead of politics.
'. . .Joe, you know there is something we’ve got to talk about --- your salvation. . .'
Lunch over, we head for the
door and Brother says, “Joe, you
know there is something we’ve got to talk about --- your salvation.” Nothing
makes me more anxious than when he wants to talk about getting me saved. And he
wants to talk about it every damned time we get together, which for that very
reason is not very often.
“Joe, I don’t wanna be
up there in heaven with daddy and God without you,” he says with a pleading
look. “Will you be saved?”
”There is time enough for
that,” I hedge.
“None knoweth the
hour,” he replies. After thirty years of being jolted by this question you’d
think I’d have come up with a better answer by now. But only one answer will
ever satisfy him. We walk outside into that kind of cold that makes your face
hurt. Brother stops in front of his blue Toyota truck. Again that pleading look
comes to his brown eyes.
“I never did finish my
deer-hunting story,” he says. (It’s too damned cold out here to be spinning
yarns, as far as I’m concerned but, then, I’ve told you about the politeness
“Wellsir, that ole’
buck come into view and this time I know I’ve got him…”
A shudder moves through me.
My legs feel limp.
“That buck looked right
at me for the longest time. Square and straight on. I could see the sky like
heaven in his eyes.” Brother’s voice is rising now.
The icy brown hills
undulate around us…a leaden sky presses down and down, closer, closer, only to
shatter revealing a piercing silver canopy. A roar fills my head.
“I raised up Pap’s old
His hand comes to rest on
my shoulder, heavy, yet weightless. An uncontrollable shaking grips me. The
barren leafless ridges now ripple like stubbled backs of great beasts and a
sharp rising wind groans long forgotten passages…I lift mine eyes unto the
hills…from whence cometh my strength…
Brother’s face is flooded
with a beautiful and terrible awe as he stalks on.
“The sights settled right
in on his heart…”
I know that right about
here you are thinking I got saved. I didn’t. Instead, I recovered myself
rather like a man falling from great heights who manages to grab onto that
awning on the way down. It happens every time. It is being on the edge of the
most exalted release, then pulling back because it also means the death of self
as you know it. Would not life be a hell of a lot easier with our past sins, all
the terrible things that make us wince at their recollection, placed solidly on
the everlasting shoulders of Jesus? A clean start?
So does the man who caught
the awning on the way down feel even one smidgen of relief? Hell no. He just
stands there in the parking lot uncomfortable as the proverbial whore in church,
looking at his brother who is choking back his disappointment---no, not
disappointment, outright inconsolable sorrow. He is near tears. I grasp at the
air, trying to lighten things up and, blame it on stupidity, I even try to
broach the subject lightly.
“One thing for sure
little brother,” I say. “These near misses got to stop. My ole heart ain’t
what it used to be.”
“Oh, I didn’t miss that
buck,” he says, a rigid grin now locked onto his face. “I nailed him at
about two hundred yards.” As I said, we are people who know the subtext but
never comment on it. Sometimes it can jump right up and thump us upside the head
and we still ignore it.
snow flurries thicken as we say our goodbyes to another distant crack of a deer
rifle. One more time I, the prodigal brother, have been snatched from proffered
grace by pride's certain hand. Like the hand that pulls the trigger, bringing
down the unsuspecting twelve-point buck, the hand of pride pulls me back into
its own dominion, back across the waters of Babylon, a river so deep and wide
even blood and brotherhood cannot breach it. Who am I to say that hand is not
best called Satan’s?
Bageant is a writer and editor living in Winchester, Virginia. For Joe’s
“Git down and pound the floor cause it tastes so good” catfish batter
recipe, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(It’s all in the cornmeal, folks!) Copyright 2005 by Joe Bageant.]
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