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October 31, 2008

Thoughts from the Bible Belt - or how Lincoln Allison failed to recognise the Baptists' Jesus

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison asks if the Baptists' Jesus he encounters in the US Bible Belt is in anyway related to the Anglican Jesus he was introduced to in his youth.

THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY exhorts the billboard on the freeway. "I wasn't even considering it" I remark to my companion, to whom I happen to be married.

When you drive, as we just did, through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas the existence of religious belief seems more immediate and threatening than anywhere else on the planet, including Islamic countries. The threat was not just to me as an irreligious person, but also to my wife as a Roman Catholic.

And to the pair of us as an institution: we sat and listened to a radio discussion of whether a person with faith could and should be married to a person without. The conclusion was No on both counts. Well, thanks! "Totally illiberal", I said, rather ineffectively. "Completely un-Christian" added my wife. Out in these parts there are many radio stations, but 95% of them are devoted to religion, country music or “conservative” politics or combinations of the above; the other 5% are classical music stations coming out of the state capitals and college towns.

So you cannot avoid the old conundrum: why is this most modern of societies also the most religious, in defiance of a good deal of social and historical theorising? De Tocqueville had instructive, if confused, ideas on the subject, the most powerful of which was that it arose out of the separation of church and state, given that religious identity was the motive for many to emigrate. Thus many Americans "own" their religion, as we say these days, there is no political opposition to religion and anti-clericalism of the European sort is inconceivable. And if this insight is genuine then long live the Established Church say I, not for the first time.

We exposed ourselves to an extreme version of this by staying in the Illinois Amish country (which should read Amish and Mennonite) around Arthur and Arcola. This is not to be confused with the well-known and tourist-infested Amish country of Pennsylvania. Around Arthur the community drives its buggies largely unobserved by outsiders and eats rather dull Americanised mittel-European food in Grandma Yoder's local chain of restaurants.

For a classical libertarian it would be, I suppose, something to admire as it lived out its collective life in such resolute independence of the state. But I am a non-classical libertarian and it disturbed me to discover that the 47 Amish and Mennonite schools in the area limit their curriculum quite severely and strongly discourage "unnecessary" education, which is defined as learning beyond the eighth grade.

Nineteenth century social theory - Acton, Mill and Tocqueville - offered us an intense series of speculations about democracy and the tyranny of the majority. I remain at least partly persuaded by their more pessimistic speculations. Real republics - places like Athens, Rome and the US and as opposed to places (like Italy) which are just getting by with republican forms for lack of any alternative - have totalitarian tendencies. There is a strong norm of religious belief in America, much more powerful and better rooted than any norm of belief in Communism ever was anywhere. All serious candidates must be "born again" these days.

But when we use the stereotyping phrases "religious right", "bible belt" and so on it is as well to remember that the largest religion in the USA is actually Roman Catholicism; on the official census figures it is the faith of 28% of the population and this is certainly an underestimate because of illegal Mexican immigration.

Baptism is second having grown to 19%, with behind it a huge variety of smaller protestant sects led by the Presbyterians and Methodists. This all becomes blurred because Americans have far fewer inhibitions than Europeans about attending the services of more than one sect.

I must say, the religion which gives me the creeps is Baptism in its American forms. Like Islam it has no effective mechanisms of central legitimacy and thus licenses the claim to religious authority to the self appointed and lunatic. I also find the Baptists' Jesus as unrecognisable as he is repugnant.

I may not have believed in the divinity of the Jesus I was introduced to in the Anglican church and I didn't accept many of his ethical teachings, but at least he seemed to be a nice chap. He was (usually) calm and reflective and prescribed tolerance and forgiveness. He turned water into wine and said that you were unlikely to get to Heaven if you hoarded personal wealth. He turned the other cheek and warned of Hell as the absence of his Father's love. The whole point of him was that we were to move on from the primitivism of the Old Testament.

The Jesus you meet on Tennessee radio stations is almost the exact opposite. One feels that he would turn wine into water if he didn't prefer to bully you into abstemiousness. Hell is still a flamethrower up your backside for ever and serve you right. His preferred role in general is as a sort of bullying personal therapist with an unhealthy interest in his clients. It’s none of my business of course, but does this have anything to do with Christianity at all? Or is it a purely solipsistic and American nonsense, dressed in Christian forms for the sake of legitimacy?

I only attended one religious ceremony during my stay in the US. For obvious reasons it was in the Roman rite, a mass to celebrate the delightfully named "23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time" at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, but also the Labor Day parade.

I even briefly met the Cardinal Archbishop after the ceremony. His Eminence's sermon was polemical and political, emphasising altruism, the virtues of community and solidarity with poverty, the wickedness of greed, etc. He implied that, although abortion was a mortal sin, voting Republican wasn't far behind. (In broader context, this is the character of the church in New York rather than in the USA as a whole because polls show a majority of Catholics supporting McCain over Obama.) But the whole thing was recognisably Christian and quite different from the neo-Judaic, crypto-Islamic stuff they peddle on the other side of the Appalachians.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.


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I cannot go along with this article. What sort of Jesus does the author want? Perhaps the kind that makes others behave as he would want them to. But one that has any impact on his own life? It appears that neither the Catholic nor the Baptist version will do, but is there any version that will? As the original himself said:

“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 5, 2008 10:28 PM
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