a homily given on July 22, 2012
A few international stories in honor of the Olympics:
Hungarians will not clink glasses in a toast with beer. Why? Because they were defeated by the Hapsburgs in 1848 (who then toasted their victory) they vowed never to do this for 150 years so even after 1998 and even after everyone forgot which war started the tradition or from whence it came, they will scold you if you toast with beer.
Moral: Myth takes a life of its own and human ritualized behavior can long outlast its antecedents.
A political fracas occurred early yesterday in London:
"The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen - more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?" wrote Aidan Burley, a Conservative Party MP who was fired as a ministerial aide in David Cameron's government after revelations he attended a Nazi-themed stag party in France last year.
"Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!" he added minutes later.
Moral: If Conservatism is still alive and well and in London and Europe, let’s acknowledge how long it is apt to thrive in this, our homeland, the South.
Liberal Religion in the South. Three questions: What is meant by the South? What is meant by Religion? And what does it mean for Unitarian Universalism?
The Southern United States/”Dixie” is most distinguished by its culture. The boundaries are clear to most (but not all), but the culture is nearly 100% discernible by any outsider. Kentucky is technically a border state, but almost any visitor from New Jersey, California, Germany or Mars would call it Southern because of 1) the accents, 2) the food 3) the music and 4) the religion. That said, it is “less” southern than some other places, for example… Tennessee, where just last week, I saw a sign that said if you fail to tip, a kid gets a mullet. When Anke asked what’s a mullet, the clerk said, you’ll see one soon. I said I don’t know, we’re headed back to Kentucky before nightfall, to which he said, Kentucky’s just as bad. I have not done a scientific study, but I guarantee you the number of Confederate flags goes up exponentially as soon as you pass Bowling Green.
But let’s just concentrate on #4, religion. The South has a special relationship with religion which is recognized by theologians, sociologists, and armchairs philosophers. It is referred to as the Bible belt. Since we are also the most out of shape and overweight maybe we will have to change it to the Bible elastic waist pants, but for now, it’s Bible belt.
The good people of the South have a highly developed sense of place. I love to listen to the people of Springfield talk and tell stories. It’s like reading Faulkner. Everyone white is related somehow and everyone black is related somehow and there’s some overlap, too. Everyone is known by where they grew up, where the significant events occurred, and they tell and retell the stories. Religion, primarily Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, is woven through these stories as is work, family, and politics.
The mythical story of the South is the story of the Civil war and in this myth, the noble Southerner was expelled from Eden, and the War (simply called the War) was the fall from Grace which is very much alive. It circumscribes and colors and haunts Southern religion the way the Austrian defeat does Hungarian beer drinking. People don’t even need to know the beginning of the myth or the true story; they just know you’re a Yankee if you ain’t one of them.
What is Religion?
When we talk about Southern religion, we are primarily talking about “Southern Evangelical Protestantism.” What I’d love to do right now is make a sharp and clear definition for you between all religions that fall loosely or tightly under that aegis and all that are opposed to it, which I am going to call “American Civil Religion.”
In its most distilled form SEP is the response and a reaction of the victimization of the Southerner, his near-feeling of crucifixion after the “War.” Curiously, the very Southerners who most perpetuate this religion in its most virulent and exclusionary versions, and who continue who expound the most hateful doctrines of racism associated with the American South, are the members of the Underclass who would never have benefitted from a Confederate victory. But in culture of nations as in churches, I find the truth does not often interfere with myth.
The religion is 1) a rationalization 2) a relief and 3) a reinforcement for the “beleaguered and defeated southerner.
Rationalization~ As man is to God, so slave is to Master. This analogy explains the participation of Southern “Christian” clergy in system that seems to outsiders to be anathema: slavery and racism. By understanding their goal as that of converting heathen Africans, many Southerners rationalized a hierarchical and abusive form of religion.
Relief ~ Conquest over anxiety and guilt. “Blessed Assurance” is no mere platitude. The collective guilt that hovers at the periphery of every Southerner’s conscience is alleviated to some degree by the core doctrine of evangelical religion: the assurance of forgiveness: “The Christian is merely a Sojourner in the world. Evils have to be endured, and the gospel makes them endurable.”
Reinforcement ~ The culture and rituals of the evangelical tradition: “Hellfire, Bible thumping, serpent-swinging, camp meeting, tongue-talking, tear shedding,” and the ultimate ritual of the altar call and conversion (being “saved”) are forms of exorcism that expiate the guilt of racism, slavery, and its concomitant demons over and over again.
I read a blog by a liberal fellow in Alabama subtitled “the favorite thing for Southerners to bring up, RELIGION, and the least favorite, RACE…” that pretty well nails it.
Quite different than this is what has been named American Civil Religion, of which Unitarianism and Universalism, at least in their original forms, were the preeminent examples.
Robert Bellah defined American Civil Religion as the religious dimension of a people through which they interpret their historical experience in light of transcendent reality. (Meyer, 68)
An article in Harvard Square Library lays out beautifully the historic development of American Civil Religion: The unifying theme in the new world epic is the open circle of the free way of life. Wholeness which is open for growth is the primary characteristic of the liberal way of life in America.
The core of ACR is the social gospel, forged in the aftermath of Industrialization which both blessed and cursed our society after the Civil war, and articulated most clearly by Niebuhr and Rauschenbusch, but exemplified most in Unitarianism and Universalism.
Key tenets of this Enlightenment understanding of religion are an emphasis on democracy, an allegiance to what has been called the Kingdom of God or the Open Circle, optimism about the nature of humanity, and and emphasis on freedom, reason and tolerance.
Wrote Dean Sperry of Harvard:
Something there is in American life which doesn’t love walls. There is a residual Leveller in all of us. Back of our Equalitarianism there lies the old prophetic ideal of the whole of life lived as a single consistent experience… hence one of the most marked differences between the religion of America and that of the old world : the idea of the Church is not and has never been the center of our religious interest. We are more interested in the Kingdom of God in its totality. (HSL, 2005, p.4)
There is indeed a Southern Civil religion or “Southern Way of Life” that could be described as “less optimistic, less liberal, less tolerant, less democratic, and more homogeneously Protestant.” (Meyer, 69)
Enter into this culture the UU churches and fellowships such as ours who planted themselves in the South. But we did not only enter in the mid 20th century. We were preceded by Horace Holley in 1820s who came from Boston to serve as the liberal President of Transylvania College and was run out of Lexington by the Presbyterian Synod. We were preceded by the Universalists who were here even before Holley, with meeting houses in Paris, KY and Louisville and all around the countryside, giving the lie to the hellfire and damnation of Edwards and the great Revival and preaching and living against Calvinism.
Like all important discussions, this one is not simple. The myth has two sides. The South has been a scapegoat for Northerners who typify it to avoid facing their own complicity in our country’s long history of racism and exploitation.
There is actually something liberal religion can learn now from Southern religious tradition. We have excoriated evangelical Christianity for its focus on personal salvation over what we proudly decree to be the social gospel. We have a highly developed notion of human potential but sometimes neglect the fallibility and the forgiveness available to every human heart. To quote Suzanne Meyer:
While human potential in the abstract may be virtually unlimited, individual limitations are very real. Human beings sin and are sinned against. I encounter people every day who are victims of brokenness and alienation. For those who are victims, liberal theology offers both moral outrage and compassion, but to those who are both victim and victimizer, both the sinned against and the sinner, liberal theology has less to offer. The Southern experience on the other hand has something to say to those of us who are both victim and offender.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of a progressive, open, democratic faith with a word of hope, that is not a collection of self-righteous victims but a place where sinners and sinnees both and alike can come to listen to and learn from one another, and to grow a soul. TBC