Commentary

“What’s Wrong with
Southern Religion?”

Dwight A. Moody 

Edward E. Baptist begins his masterful book about American slavery with this description of a coffle:

 

“Not long after they heard the first clink of iron, the boys and girls in the cornfield would have been able to smell the grownups’ bodies, perhaps even before they saw the double line coming around the bend. Hurrying in locked step, the thirty-odd men came down the dirt road like a giant machine. Each hauled twenty pounds of iron, chains that draped from neck to neck and wrist to wrist, binding them all together.”

 

These chain gangs of enslaved men were walking from Virginia (where their services as slaves were no longer urgent) over the mountains and through the woods to the new, more lucrative cotton fields of Mississippi and Louisiana. They were headed for the auction blocks in Jackson and New Orleans.

 

Their route would have taken them by, not only fields full of other enslaved workers, but also hundreds of homes, scores of schools, and not a few churches. And in these homes, schools, and churches would have been women cooking, and men teaching, and boys and girls and moms and dads singing the old gospel songs of southern religion.

 

That’s what troubles me.

 

How could they keep singing when, just outside their double entry doors, their music was interrupted by the tromp of feet and the clank of chains? How could any preacher keep his mind on the gospel when, through the clear glass windows on both walls of his sanctuary, he could see barely clothed men linked together by pound upon pound of black iron?

 

What kind of religion could flourish in these situations, with these interruptions?

 

What kind of rationale could be offered from reason, text, or experience that would tolerate such blatant contradiction of the Good News contained in the singing and preaching of people and preacher?

 

Then came the War, and emancipation, and a new world order. But in many ways, it was more of the same: segregation, isolation, poverty, and violence. All of it propagated by these same religious people: the Baptists, and Methodists, and Christians, and later, the Pentecostals.

 

This is the world into which I was born, and raised, and formed as a Christian.

 

I confess: I love southern religion, with its gospel singing, and tent revivals, and river baptisms. I love the Bibles, and bulletins, and envelop boxes that were so much a part of our Christian culture. I love the prayer meetings, and church suppers, and youth campfires around which we gathered to testify of our love for Jesus and our willingness to follow him wherever He would lead.  I did that, and so have many of you.

 

I never thought about the contradiction at the core of my religion. And no preacher, teacher, or spiritual guide ever brought it up for discussion. Only much later did I begin asking myself the question: how can these things be?

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. helped with these things, and later, college, and seminary, and the many people I met who ushered me into a larger community of people who loved God and sought to walk in the ways of God.

 

Individually, many of these southern Christians—my parents, and teachers, and ministers—were kind and gracious and committed people. They loved God, and followed Jesus, and lived in what I thought was the fullness of the Spirit. But there was something about the religious system in which they were trapped that negated so much of what they valued and professed.

 

This same devout culture had a word or two for the women, neatly summarized recently by a west coast preacher: Go Home.  Or sit down.  Or shut up. Women, including my mother, were marginalized in every way in the religious culture of the South.  

 

And now the queer folk are taking the brunt of this religious brutality, although there is hardly a congregation, or choir, or church committee across the South that does not owe a good portion of their success to these good gay people who must keep their sexuality a secret.

 

Finally, comes Trump, a man who violates in person and in principal every component of the Jesus life that I was taught to embrace; and with unfeigned enthusiasm, the legions of southern Christians swoon at his feet and swear by his name.

 

There is something wrong, very wrong, deathly wrong with this religion in the South. For fifteen years and more it shaped me as a person, as a neighbor, as a citizen, as a Christian. But for the last 45 years, I have tried to fathom the wickedness at the center of my tradition and to free myself from it.

 

Like the great apostle I was taught to love at an early age, I cry out, “Who will rescue me from this dominion of death?”

 

Help me, Jesus. Help all of us.

 

 

 

December 5, 2019

 

Commentary: Archives

Here is an archive of my new series of weekly columns, which began in the spring of 2018.  I welcome your feedback using the reader RESPONSE form at the bottom of every page of this web site.

What’s Wrong with Southern Religion?

The End of the World 

Partners in Persecution 

The Write and Wrong of C. S. Lewis 

Can the Supreme Court Save the Culture?

With Billy Barr on the Sawdust Trail

Can Singing Save America?

Cancer: Living, Daying, and Praying 

The Mystery of  Mister Trump 

One Biblical Story, Two Political Visions

Blowing in the Wind 

Will You Also Unsubscribe?

What Kind of Country Do Christian Nationalists Want?

That’s A Completely Crazy Position”

“Let It Go. Give It Up. Throw It Down.”

“I No Longer Identify As A Christian”

Graham, King, and the Two Americas

I Am So Very Sad

Running as a Pro-Jesus Democrat 

Celebrating America the Beautiful 

Surviving a Screen Sabbatical 

Moving the Statue of Liberty

Jesus Loves Obamacare 

Religious Freedom or Religious Confusion?

Praying for the President

And What Do You Do?

Saving the Catholic Church

A View From the Top 

Praying on a Three-Legged Stool 

Was Jesus a Christian?

Keeping My Religion in 2020

What Has Paris To Do With Jerusalem?

Getting Religion in 2020

Religion, Politics, and the 2020 Election 

Listening to the Preacher 

Making America Great Again

David, Goliath, and Donald Trump 

Southern Baptists and United Methodists 

The Practice of Exclusion 

Praying for Revival

From the East and the West

Forgetting the Past

Remembering Angela 

Loving Our Neighbor 

Preaching Us Together 

My Theory of Preaching 

Twice A Year

Helping Dr. Mohler 

Reading Thomas Merton

Meeting Kevin Cosby

When I Read the Book

Bohemian Rhapsody: An Encounter

A Future for Baptist Seminaries?

Fear in Politics and Religion

The First Muslim Seminary

Don’t Preach This Sermon

Read.Talk.Pray.Gossip.

The Lilly Endowment 

The Christian Tsunami

Their Words Seem Like Nonsense 

The Big House in the Middle 

The Judge, the Preacher,  and the Good Samaritan 

I’ll Pass on the Bottle 

A Week of Shame and Pride 

Sabbatical Grace 

Questions for Catholics 

Religious Liberty for All

Resurrection of Kristopher Hampton 

Death of Kristopher Hampton 

All About the Children 

I Pledge my Allegiance

Let’s Move the Statue of Liberty 

Some Preachers of Promise

Southern Baptist Need Pope Francis 

Mystery of the Trump Presidency 

Two Funerals: Graham and Cone 

On the Other Side of Oddville

Here are a few of the articles and stories from my book On the Other Side of Oddville. These were collected from my first series of columns, published by Mercer Press in 2002. You can order a copy by using the response from at the bottom of this page; $20 will cover the cost of the book and mailing. (Checks to Dwight A. Moody).