I’m going to make a disclaimer up front on this one. Spirituality is a private affair and also a matter of perspective, culture, upbringing, and conscience. I’m not here to make any broad generalizations about that or what I think any of you should do. This post is more about other functions served by particular religious practices familiar to me. Yes, there are mosques and temples aplenty here. People worship as they choose, but there are common threads of ethics present in all the major spiritual traditions with adherents in the Deep South. This just happens to be my particular experience, and how it has impacted the way I view the pragmatic functions of religions through time and around the world.
My parents raised me in the Episcopalian church–what most people know as Catholic Light or what I like to call American Anglican, because it’s the direct result of all the Anglican Bishops returning to England at the onset of the American Revolution. They do a lot of kneeling and turning 90 degrees and use the call-and-response form a great deal in their ceremony. There’s the ritual of transubstantiation in which they use real wine rather than grape juice as many other Southern churches do these days, and depending on your community church, there’s a great deal more structure to the ceremony than you might find among some of the more relaxed sects here.
However, the trend I have noted in all the places that I’ve traveled, is that community sanctioned religion tends to act in other more practical ways than a spiritual dousing rod for its followers. While here it also does that for many, it’s really just a dressed up social code. It governs public behavior, and to a certain extent will exert some control over private behavior as well. Depending on the size of the settlement and the number of additional viewpoints present, a church will often function as an ethical lodestone for a community, as well as a locus of social activities. This is important in the South. While there may be a fair number of people here, now, much of this country spent a good many years in a state of agrarian sparseness. Some of the middle and southern bits of Georgia are still there.
On a tangent, I think that’s why more densely populated areas of this country tend to see the more thinly settled places as populated with religious zealots. Sometimes, it’s because they really are. On other occasions, it’s because there’s a lack of other voices present in the rural community social “discussion” and the respective sect does what Christianity has always done–move in and set up shop, with a finger in every pie. They are the community, in some cases, and every aspect of life is touched by their religious fiddly fingers.
But let’s set aside that for the nonce. It’s really quite a separate issue from what I set out to explore. As I said, I’m more interested in the pragmatic functions religion often serves in these communities. As a town grows larger and more complex, you’ll get your fair share of those who view church attendance on Sundays as a sort of spiritual dry-cleaning service, enabling them to go out into the world for the rest of the week and behave abominably to their fellow humans. But in communities of somewhat smaller size, this is less often the case.
As well, while there will always be zealots who need hard proof that you think exactly the way they do about all matters spiritual, in the case of larger small towns, if it can be comfortably assumed that your thoughts run along in the same general direction, you’re pretty much left alone on that score. No pressure, as long as you’re not stingy with your coffee cake recipe and don’t turn down the invitation to the community church potlucks too often. That’s because, in such towns as these–which have long been the backbone of how the South tends to think about itself–how you act towards your neighbors matters a great deal more than what you think happens when we die.
That’s because much of the South is agricultural in its leanings. It’s certainly not the case everywhere, but if you were a part of an agrarian community, you were too busy much of the time for idle chitchat or social calls. That made the times when you did get together with your neighbors all the more important. That’s where much of the work of social bonding and community spirit was done. It just so happens that much of it was accomplished under the auspices of a religious organization of some sort. Sunday lunch or “dinner” was an important weekly meal. In some cases, this was when the most lavish meat serving could be had. The rest of the week was primarily comprised of field-hand food, but that’s another topic entirely.
Gatherings for recognized Holidays or in celebration of some sort of event within the community were typically well-attended. You made yourself conspicuous by your absence. Now, don’t mistake my intentions here. Sure, there was enough religious experience involved in many cases, but the social gatherings were often just that–people eating, drinking, and visiting. These gatherings were about exchanging news, catching up with people you hadn’t had time to talk to all week or for several weeks, and reinforcing a sense of social cohesion. To me, that’s the practical face of any god–a way for people to connect to other people, and a means to keep them from being rude to one another. (It’s commonly not thought polite behavior to steal from or murder your neighbors…hence, religious codes prohibiting these practices.)
Many Southerners I know give lip service to some form of religion or other, but on every account are rather relaxed in their spiritual exercise. It’s not that they aren’t good people and wouldn’t behave according to some of the more deeply ingrained strictures, such as the aforementioned prohibitions, but when singled out, they don’t feel strongly about any god. My father has a tradition, when presiding over the group prayer before a family holiday meal. After reading an appropriate passage from the book of Common Prayer (Little Red Cookbook!), he says in a single breath, “Thank the Lord for dinner, amen, Martha pass the rice.” That’s because his own grandfather said grace in this fashion, untroubled by a lack of frills or a serviceable interpretation of what spiritual forms were socially acceptable–they had been observed. He was anxious to enjoy the meal his wife, Martha, had prepared. Enough said. Now onto the important business at hand.