As a whole, we, Americans, live in a Christian-based culture. Our calendar alone demonstrates that fact. If this were a Jewish culture, we could shop at Wal-Mart on Dec 25th. If this were a Pagan culture, the 12,000 lb Times Square crystal ball would drop on Oct 31st – not Dec 31st. And the festivities would end with a mass scrying led by Ryan Seacrest himself. However, for better or worse, the framework of our culture is, at its very core, Christian.
While this Christian cultural-bias manifests differently in varying regions, it is most definitely pronounced in the South Eastern U.S. – the area studied in the Jews on First article that prompted the original question. It ain’t called the Bible Belt for nothing. Many of the most memorable evangelical icons are from the Southern U.S. such as Jerry Falwell, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Bible Man. But, if you need statistical proof, look no further than the Pew Forum demographics maps.
Until moving South, I had never felt the “otherness” that comes with being a religious minority – not Jewish or Pagan. I was raised in the relative comfort of New York’s cultural heterogeneity in which religion is a private family matter isolated from secular life. Even when God was mentioned in public school, nobody noticed. We could have been saying, “One Nation under Goats” and it would have had the same spiritual impact.
However, Southern culture is very different. The South has been marinating in evangelical Christianity for so long that it permeates all aspects of southern life, even the secular. As expressed by native Georgian, Amy Ray, of the Indigo Girls, “…once you get raised on Jesus, it is kind of always a part of you even if you are a pagan.” (WNYC, 2012) In other words, in the South, goats are never confused with Gods.
Why? Historically-speaking, the South was an agrarian-based society that was founded on small towns, city squares and Friday night football. At its very center was the Church acting as both the town’s religious and social foundation. This idea is summed up in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “faith and message” statement:
“All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society.”
And, this is how religious doctrine seeped into secular Christian culture. These small towns were, and still are, a living Venn diagram in which religion, culture and government merge at the walls of the Church.
If everyone in town is Christian, nobody minds – a scenario common to these rural areas. For example, in Alabama, the Jackson County School Board openly supported the on-campus preaching of Horace Turner, a.k.a Bible Man. Local State Senator Shradack McQuill remarked, “We need God in the public schools” adding that unhappy parents should just home-school. Clearly, this educational program is unconstitutional. However, when the Board voted, there was nobody to object. Therefore, today, Jackson County’s Bible Man continues to …do whatever a Bible Man does.
Even in the larger cities, this Church-centered mentality remains ingrained within the collective culture. In the South, you are not asked, “What is your religion?” You are asked, “What Church do you attend?” That alone speaks volumes. So, taking this Christian-infused secular tradition and adding it to the aggressive “outreach” policy of the dominant Southern Baptist church, you have a society in which Jesus sits on every street and attends every event.
To better illustrate, let me refer back to the Jews on First article that focused on children living in two adjacent suburbs of Atlanta: East Cobb and Roswell. Roughly, within a 5 mile radius, there are four synagogues and a Jewish Community Center. Within that area, you will also find a large representation of Christian sects, including Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Korean, Chinese, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Coptic, and more. There’s an Islamic Center and a New Age store. Moreover, East Cobb boasts the One World Spiritual Center – a Church that embraces alternative faiths such as New Thought Christians, Pagans, Hindus, and Baha’i.
Without a doubt, East Cobb is one of the most religiously diverse suburbs of Atlanta. The interfaith love is so strong there that the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and Temple Etz Chaim, who share a parking lot, periodically use their marquis’ to offer holiday blessings to each other. “Shana Tova,” reads the Lutheran marquis. “Happy Easter,” reads the Temple’s. In December, it’s like a tennis match of marquis well-wishes.
Despite all of that diversity, local students’ are still faced with the frustrating experiences illustrated by Jews on First. Yes, Cobb County did put “creationism” stickers in the science texts. Yes, the student-run Fellowship of Christian Athletes is allowed to paper school walls with advertising. Yes, the Sojourn Church uses a public middle school for Sunday worship. And, yes, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a so-called megachurch, dominates East Cobb’s landscape, aggressively seeking to convert the “unchurched” with its youth and school outreach programs.
(An aside: I will omit my comments on the Boy Scouts’ and Girl Scouts’ presence within the elementary school classrooms. That particular subject would require a soap box, a microphone and sedative.)
Setting aside blatant proselytizing, the Southern tradition of a Church-based culture persists even within the diversity-rich suburbs of East Cobb and Roswell. The local churches run many of the community programs such as sports leagues, music conservatories, gymnastics programs, art classes, day-care centers and summer camps. Every church has a pumpkin patch in October and an evergreen forest in December.
“Why don’t you join the Church’s league? It’s just basketball. There isn’t any religious teaching.” But, it’s not just basketball. It means something more. Why? Because it means something here in this Southern environment. Because in that Church, even without a pre-game prayer, we, the non-Christians, are the aliens.
Fortunately, in the Southern cities, religious minorities do have the benefit of secular entertainment options. However, that’s not the case everywhere. Having worked on several Lady Liberty League cases, I have witnessed the pressures placed on Pagan families living in rural areas. There, in that small town, that Venn diagram, boundaries are still blurred. And, while problems often arise from direct attacks, they also flare up simply due to the town’s tradition, a.k.a. “the way it’s done.” In these rural battles, the stakes can be very high and the damage can be devastating.
With that said, the U.S. Constitution still reigns supreme. The First Amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”
This includes public schools. If a government school supports the presence of one religion, it must do the same for every religion. If it disallows the presence of one religion, it must disallow all.
Unfortunately for religious minorities living in the Southern rural landscape, the battle is on-going; especially if the town is controlled by the evangelical Southern Baptist Church. This organization has a different interpretation of the First Amendment:
Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.……. and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power. (The Baptist Faith & Message: Religious Liberty)
There are profound questions left open, only to be answered privately by every Southerner practicing a minority faith. When do you stay quiet and blend in? When do you re-locate? When do you fight back? The answers should be considered carefully. Just this morning, I saw a Must Ministries collection bin in a school lobby. Should I say something? Should I let it go? Or, should I ask to put a Pagan Assistance Fund bucket alongside it? Legally, the school would have to accept my collection bin or reject both.
Of course, I let the collection bin issue go. Must Ministries does positive community work. And, frankly, I don’t mind Christianity’s presence provided it is kept within the private sector where I have the choice to reject or absorb what is offered. For example, I can avoid the local karate school where a child, quite literally, earns a “Bible Belt.” And, I can choose to only visit the doctors who don’t hang Bible verses in their examination rooms. Just as private businesses have a right to promote, within their walls, their religious beliefs, I have a right not to purchase their products. As Pagans, we must choose our battles wisely because the fight for liberty, while worth it, can be very ugly.
In the end, the South is what it is – a place of phenomenal beauty and vibrant, unique cultural traditions. But with that comes its historical religious baggage. If you want to live here, you must get used to it. Just like in marriage, you enjoy the good, tolerate the bad… and laugh about the rest.