William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! queries “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all” When it comes to religion in the American South, the influence of Christianity is undeniable and unavoidable. It shows up in everything. It is the cultural water we breathe. Often in Southern literature it is clear that a distinction shows up rather quickly between how the Southern brand of Christianity was observed differently by white and black, rich and poor, man and woman. If we are to answer Faulkner’s question as expressed in Absalom! Absalom! We cannot do so without these categorical distinctions. Because while history may serve to only tell the stories of those privileged enough to have recorded them, heritage expressed as memory serves to tell the stories of all. And rightly declares that everyone’s story and life is of consequence and rich with meaning. But in order to tell these stories authentically we must confront the facades of faith that disguise hearts of hate, which has been, at least for me, a performative function of the literature we have investigated.
First, the white man of privilege William Alexander Percy distinguishes his Delta religious experiences with a “laxity” serving as both an apologetic of the hypocrisy of the American South, while at the same time endorsing the solace promised within the sacred walls of Southern churches. He writes, “We didn’t regard drunkenness and lechery, Sabbath-breaking and gambling as more than poor judgement or poor taste. What we were slow to forgive was hardness of heart and all unkindness. Perhaps we were overstocked with sinners and pariahs and publicans, but they kept the churches in their places and preserved the tradition of sprightliness.” With these words, he expresses a fundamental component of a type of “Southern Civil Religion.” With one doctrinal tenet that I call, “The well-intentioned Southern heart.” The doctrine is specifically expressed by the common Southern idiom “Bless their heart.” The well intentioned Southern heart is an unspoken assumption. Even the most heinous atrocities of slavery, lynching, misogyny, are excused with idiomatic expressions, “Well it was a different time”, “That was back then, this is now”, “I don’t have racist bone in my body” and the like are the masks worn by Southerners to protect them from the hidden pain beneath them. This hypocrisy is put on display, like a runway model, every Sunday morning in white Southern churches.
In contrast to the Southern white church experience is that of Maya Angelou’s as expressed in I know why the caged bird sings; “The congregation lowed with satisfaction. Even if they were society’s pariahs, they were going to be angels in a marble white heaven and sit on the right hand of Jesus, the Son of God. The Lord loved the poor and hated those cast high in the world. Hadn’t He Himself said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven? They were assured that they were going to be the only inhabitants of that land of milk and honey, except of course a few white folks like John Brown who history books said was crazy anyway. All the Negroes had to do generally, and those at the revival especially, was bear up under this life of toil and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye.” The African American Church served as a place of validation for black folks not as an exercise in self segregation, but rather a response to societal segregation, a safe place where collectively they could experience an alternate dimension of empowerment and autonomy.
But even those born into empowerment and autonomy were not exempt from using the tool of religion as an opportunity of momentary escape. A cultural artifact that was ever present in the language they employed. For instance, the use of the phrase “God’s nightgown!” in Margret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is illustrative of a Southern way of speaking that blurs the lines between the sacred and the profane. It is perhaps comparable to “For heaven’s sake!” or “Lord help!” It is an often-repeated phrase that is used by Gerald O’Hara, father of Scarlett, who is a loyal confederate whose love for Southern living and streak of stubbornness is echoed in the life and temperament of his daughter. Scarlett uses this phrase often when faced with insurmountable and overwhelming circumstances, or a momentary feeling of incongruity. This is a common way of expressing the duplicitous nature of Southern culture. Southerners struggle with the same sorts of hate, lusts, and general immoralities displayed in other cultures, but Southerners seem to have a greater capacity for the particular vice of hypocrisy. This vice especially displays itself in the lives of the privileged, as it seems they have more to be ashamed of than do those they mistreat.
These themes are prevalent in Gone with the Wind, yet are often inconspicuous in how they are discussed. The evils of prejudice, sexism, and marital rape are present yet disguised. Gone with the Wind simultaneously occupies the space of entertainment and enlightenment. In this way the book, like the oft repeated epithet “God’s nightgown!”, only in reverse, is indeed covering the profane identity of Southern living with a gown of sacred sentimentalism.
For Southerners, Delta dwellers specifically, escape is a song on repeat. The chorus would most certainly include a line about the Big Muddy, The Mississippi River serving as a powerful metaphor, symbolic of the religious nature of our lives. As some have suggested if there wasn’t a God, it would be necessary for humanity to invent one, and in Southern literature “Ole Man River” comes mighty close to deity. The river provided a back drop to many of the stories we explored, serving as place of maturation for Mark Twain, yet leaving him, and by extension, all of us with unresolved conflicts over the ethical dilemmas of his day. Dilemmas that still haunt the American South.
But the river, like the God of the Bible, has two testaments. It could and would serve as place of destruction when it flooded its banks. But those floods equally served as compelling narratives of prisoners finding redemption and young men coming of age. Continuing analysis reveals that religious piety for Southerners is an act of evolution. It changes, like the winding Mississippi, with perspective. A journey that we navigate as Twain suggest by “the shape in our head not by the one before our eyes.”
And upon a closer examination of Southern religion, we do run the risk of Twain’s dilemma in learning the river. Twain compares his maturing in his trade to that of a doctor, who only sees the symptoms of a suffering patient, losing sight of the wonder of the human body. He writes, “Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he every see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Twain’s lament is mine. As a Preacher and an aspiring scholar, I am appreciative of the opportunity to examine the multiplicities of perspectives when it comes to Southern expressions of Christianity, but remain hopeful that this exploration will serve to increase my faith, not lessen it. I am charged with the imposition of telling the truth about my personal religious heritage. What I am discovering is that like the many stories we have explored, there is always a subtext. In the American South that subtext is marred by duplicity, hypocrisy, and hate. However, my faith, if it is to be genuine must tell the truth, no matter how ugly.
My particular Christian heritage of Pentecostalism, was one that held promise to make things better for both the poor whites and marginalized blacks of the South. But in the end, it succumbed to the cultural milieu. It could not maintain in the South, what it had already obtained, if ever so briefly, at 312 Azusa Street in 1906 Los Angeles. Which was an integrated transgressive space where white and black, rich and poor, men and women, worshiped God together. In the conflict between genuine expressions of a Spirit empowered faith, Southern hypocrisy prevailed. A kind face disguised a cruel heart. As it turned out blood was thicker than the Holy Ghost. In this case it wasn’t even skin deep. Frank Bartleman famously reported of the Azusa Revival, that the color line was washed away by the blood of Christ. However, history reveals that the blood wouldn’t cross the color line in the South.
Toward the end of Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner pens these words, “hating is like drink or drugs and she had used it so long that she did not dare risk cutting off the supply, destroying the source, the very poppy’s root and seed” Symbolic in exposing the duplicity of Southern attempts to maintain the fruits of perfection while living in denial of the roots of destruction, Faulkner’s words are prophetic when set against their fulfillment in our present day. Why do Southerners’ live at all? Hopefully we live to recapture the truth of authentic faith by confronting the pains we endeavor so hard to keep hidden. The words of James Baldwin come to mind, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” To which I conclude with a hearty “Amen.”