Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2005 / 18 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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The religion of the South | Despite outward appearances, the religion of the South is not football. It is religion itself. Naturally we try to keep that awkward fact under wraps in order to pass ourselves off as a New South — modern, progressive, secular, sanitized and Americanized at last.

But it's not easy to hide our religiosity. Indeed it's impossible, what with churches of every size and description outnumbering even fast-food restaurants in any small Southern town, and offering as variegated a bill of fare.

Long derided for its illiteracy, the South may be the last biblically literate section of the country. Which can be embarrassing in a largely secularized age that has given us so many scientific breakthroughs, sexually transmitted diseases and world wars.

Yes, the South lags behind in so many areas. By the time Dixie is modern, the rest of the country will be deep into the postmodern age.

The persistence of religion in these latitudes explains why the South has reliably out-produced the rest of the country in at least one department: literature. That's because literature, like so much of Southern life, is still steeped in religious ideas and even, on occasion, faith.

The church was the social nexus of Southern life even before Wal-Mart. Why its central position?

Will Campbell, who's a kind of bootleg preacher as well as writer, guesses that "maybe we're trying to absolve ourselves of slavery and racism." One suspects it's not so simple, and that Brother Campbell knows it's not that simple.

Given their biblical literacy, Southerners perhaps most of all Americans understand that slavery and racism are but outward symptoms of sin itself. For we are the one part of the country that has known The Fall, in the form of having lost The War, and with it the whole, antebellum myth and promise of The Garden.

"I don't know whether it was the defeat in the Civil War," says Will Campbell, "or the presence of so many African-Americans" that explains the permeating presence of Christianity in the South. But, he concludes, "There does seem to be a yearning for G-d in the South that you don't see in the North." Maybe suffering makes people yearn for deliverance. Surely it is no coincidence that G-d-thirst seems to spring from slave peoples. And defeated ones.

Some of us long have thought that we could somehow write or at least read ourselves out of sin or, if we couldn't, that literature would at least let us understand the fix we're in.

The failure of the South has not been literary but theological: an inability to fully incorporate belief into culture. Our social, economic and political failures followed naturally from that original failure. "I think it is safe to say," Flannery O'Connor wrote at some point in her brief life, "that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of G-d."

We have largely grown out of that irrational fear, but now and then we regress, and are saved.

It is only when, like Americans in general, Southerners come to think that the next invention, election, social reform, 12-step program or current panacea of choice is going to fix us, that we are lost.

Sometimes we even use religion itself as a fix. It was inevitable, book publishing being what it has become, that one can now buy a manual entitled "The Management Methods of Jesus." ("Jesus had a plan and adhered to it unfailingly. He knew where he was going, and he went there . . . . Whatever the consequences, he would go to Jerusalem and carry out his plan.")

All such books, and there are a lot of them out there, seem thoroughly American in spirit (that is, modern and success-oriented) and not at all Southern (that is, timeless and desperate). For the underlying thesis of all such oh-so-modern guides is how we can use G-d rather than how He can use us.

This instrumental approach to religion would seem foreign to both sides of the Southern character, the Christian and the Stoic. But by now the worship of the great god Success has become as endemic in these latitudes as malaria and pellagra once were, which shows how completely we've joined the Union at last.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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