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Bible Belt Blues

A chorus of Global Village idiots.

They call it the Global Village. Nothing goes unobserved, nothing is without distant consequences. A man throws a rock in Pretoria, another man ducks in Helsinki. The world's all wired, or wireless-I have no idea how any of it works, mechanically. This willful ignorance is appalling, even in an English major of Medicare age, but it's grounded in an invincible lack of interest. Call our technophobia innovation fatigue. You may find it's chronic in my generation. Though we can't fathom microchips, we don't pretend we're not stunned by their impact.

Luxor, Egypt, in January: Drifting along the west bank of the Nile at sunset in a tall-masted felucca, part of a scene as ancient as the pharaohs, I realized that a sudden dead calm created long odds against crossing the river in time for dinner, or even breakfast if the current carried us far enough downstream. But at the moment of decision the skipper snapped open his cellphone and summoned a cousin with a motorboat to tow us.

The success of Egypt's current revolution has been credited to the Internet and the devices that connect its initiates. Popular movements learn, brainstorm, strategize, and raise money online. Even the implacable bullies who rule China and North Korea have been frustrated by technology that enables a freedom-starved younger generation to conspire without congregating. Still, there's a dark side of the Global Village, a wrong side of the global tracks. In Gainesville, Florida, a fundamentalist minister with a double-digit IQ burns a Koran, for the amusement of thirty malnourished peckerwoods who make up his congregation-and in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan, a mob of Muslim fanatics slaughters twelve United Nations workers to avenge this insult to the Prophet.

Pastor Terry Jones of the (ironically named) Dove World Outreach Center had the burning videotaped, of course, and streamed it on the church's website. In just ten days, this remote spark, launched online, became a conflagration halfway around the planet. The day after the massacre at the UN compound, thousands of protesters rioted in Kandahar. Nine more people died and eighty were injured. The final body count from Pastor Terry's stupidity may exceed American military casualties for the month of April.

It's not unfair to say that there are more and deadlier idiots in Kandahar than in Gainesville. But the point is that the Global Village harbors a million village idiots, and no idiot is an island. Not anymore. Pastor Terry was bewildered by the news that he had triggered religious murders, as bewildered as he might be if he ever reads the whole Koran and discovers that he incinerated twenty-five references to his Lord Jesus Christ, all of them positive and respectful. At the least, Muhammad was an admirer of Jesus and an interpreter of his teachings. Linguistic correspondences between their names and similarities in their legends persuade some scholars of monotheism that Jesus and Muhammad-both elusive historically-are semi-mythical embodiments of the very same religious tradition, set apart only by a few centuries and the divergent mythologizing of their adherents.

Scholars don't get a lot of pulpit time in the Bible Belt. Though educated Southerners despise it as much as any of the stereotypes that still marginalize our people, the image of the heavy-breathing, possibly randy evangelist serving up hellfire to a congregation of barefoot believers with lint in their hair is one that an industrious Yankee reporter can still substantially corroborate, in most communities in the Dixie heartland-from Gainesville all the way up to Winchester, Virginia, where the recently deceased Joe Bageant, unique redneck radical and author of Deer Hunting With Jesus, affectionately chronicled his brother the preacher's adventures as an exorcist of demons. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye, and company actually walked these hills and thumped these bibles. They were not fictional characters like Elmer Gantry or comic-page caricatures like Al Capp's Marryin' Sam and Walt Kelly's Deacon Mushrat. The unctuous, nausea-inducing Pat Robertson, who blamed the burning of the World Trade Towers and Hurricane Katrina on God's anger at America's unrepentant homosexuals, has devoted his whole life to embarrassing the South far more painfully than Terry Jones and his flaming Koran.

Evangelical religion of an extreme stripe-fire and brimstone, biblical inerrancy-thrives in many far corners of the republic, but the South is its wellspring and its homeland. A county-by-county map of America constructed by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel for their book Our Patchwork Nation indicates that nearly all the counties colored yellow for "Evangelical Epicenters" are in the traditional South and the border state of Missouri. Feral religion has been the South's second greatest embarrassment, after race. Unfortunately, they've been closely linked. We can never afford to forget that those were crosses the Ku Klux Klan burned at their rallies and lynchings. And there's no denying that most segregationist Protestants of the Jim Crow generations believed that heaven itself was segregated.

When Rob Bell, the influential pastor of an evangelical Michigan megachurch, suggested in his new book Love Wins that it's high time Christians set aside archaic notions of a literal, sulfurous, demon-infested hell, all hell broke loose in the Southern synod. They cling passionately to their inferno, these least and cruelest of our Christian brethren, because there's no way on earth they can take adequate revenge on those of us who disagree with them-though they claim they love us and hope to save us in spite of ourselves.

Hell is the sturdy keystone of gloomy Calvinism. But not all evangelicals, nor even all Southern Baptists, find spiritual comfort in the damnation of others. If we groan and hang our heads over Pat Robertson and Terry Jones, we might stand up and cheer for Christian splinter sects like the Primitive Baptist Universalists of Southwest Virginia and neighboring Appalachia, who were one hundred years ahead of Rob Bell in banishing the devil from their theology. Known disrespectfully as the "no-Hellers" to their Christian neighbors, they practice the beautiful heresy of Universalism, which holds that all souls originate with God and all return to Him, without exception. Love wins. Never numerous but tenacious in a theologically hostile environment, these mountain Christians hold services characterized by hugging, laughing, crying, and affirming their belief that "people of all creeds, colors, and nationalities will share Heaven with them." The great bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley is a member of one of their congregations.

Could any Christian testament be more appealing or humane? Regrettably, the no-Hellers seem to number in the hundreds, fewer even than the snake-handlers in their native mountains, while sinner-burning churches of the born-again Right enroll Southerners by the tens of millions. Many more books will be written about the American preference for harsh, punitive religion while the rest of the Western world moves toward liberal theology or none at all. In the South, we lose our way entirely when retro religion mates with reactionary politics-a marriage made in hell that produces Rosemary's babies like Jim DeMint. What impression would the right-wing T-shirt slogan babies, guns, jesus make on poor Jesus, a radical rabbi who is not known to have fathered babies or even to have carried a sword, far less an assault rifle? From the Cross to the crosshairs, Lord have mercy on us all. One Nation Under Fire.

Southern fundamentalists have bonded with the Tea Party and politicized their pulpits, ignoring the stern warnings of Thomas Jefferson, a Universalist sympathizer who believed that separation of church and state was the one indispensable cornerstone of the democracy he invented. Jefferson had "an undying anxiety of anything that would bring church and state together," his biographer, the eminent religious historian Edwin Gaustad, testified in the famous case of the Alabama courthouse adorned with the Ten Commandments. "He was not against religion. He was against any combination of power with religion."

Last fall's midterm elections were a triumph for Southern reactionaries and fundamentalists, a triumph uninfluenced, they assure us, by racist backlash against a non-white president. As its replenished packs of attack-dog legislators sank their teeth into Muslims, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, and women's reproductive rights, as its broadcasters preached a virtual jihad of domestic intolerance, the Religious Right morphed rapidly into an American Taliban. Though they can hardly compete with the embattled Taliban's bloodlust-America is not a war zone, though it's armed like one-our militant Christians expect to correct the imbalance when a warrior Christ returns for Armageddon and drowns the Middle East in the blood of the unbaptized, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. These Christian soldiers with their apocalypse theology terrify a Global Village that for the most part wishes-believe it or not-to see the United States in the best possible light.

Of all things unique and interesting about the Southern states, hellfire Christianity is one export we should strive to keep out of the global marketplace and the global conversation. If it's not already too late. Yet there are intriguing hints of a thaw, of a new diversity here in the Old Confederacy where even Episcopalians are suspected of subversive doctrines. In Panama City, Florida, roughly two hundred miles from the pyre of the Koran in Gainesville, a popular English teacher named Michael Creamer has organized a successful atheist club as a counterpoint to Christian groups at Rutherford High School. Its membership has doubled this year, though it still falls short of two dozen. In an article in the New York Times, reporter Michael Winerip refers to Panama City as the Buckle of the Bible Belt (there are actually many claims to Bucklehood) and marvels at the student atheists' easy relationship with other students whose lives are dominated by church and the Junior ROTC.

Will the Bible Belt gradually unbuckle? In my home state of North Carolina, at Fort Bragg of all places, a thriving atheist group that calls itself MASH (Military Atheists and Secular Humanists) is raising money for a concert billed as "Rock Beyond Belief," featuring a prominent rock band and a speech by the British biologist and atheist author Richard Dawkins. MASH claims that nearly twenty percent of Fort Bragg's soldiers are nonbelievers. When soldiers in North Carolina bill themselves as secular humanists, we begin to suspect that Jesse Helms is actually dead-back in his heyday "secular humanist" was right-wing code for "Jew." Another atheist group, the Triangle Freethought Society, is sponsoring an out of the closet series of billboards in Raleigh, featuring the photographs and testimony of ordinary citizens who don't believe in God. A UNC professor of religion, Bart Ehrman, writes books explaining that the Bible is a deceptive literary grab bag authored by just about everyone except God. Though Dr. Ehrman is constantly reviled in Letters to the Editor, so far no one has tried to lynch him.

These are rays of light in a state where the constitution specifically prohibits nonbelievers from holding public office. The increasing visibility of religious skeptics encourages me, as a fellow traveler. But I guess I betray my age when I shy away from the word "atheist." It was used as a slur, with nearly the sting of "queer" or "commie," when it was directed against my father's family of Universalists fifty years ago.

"Atheist?" I probably replied. "No, no, look, there's our church with the stained-glass windows and the carved pulpit, there's the big organ where my grandmother plays the hymns. We're Christians just like you."

Not just like you, exactly, because Unitarian/Universalists honor Christ but deny his divinity-like Muslims. And my grandparents' fancy church was one of a kind among freethinkers, built with the generous participation of a multimillionaire parishioner, the railroad baron George Pullman. I don't mean to claim that Universalists faced active discrimination as Muslims or Hindus might have-this congregation was distinctly middle class-but there was an understanding that even the children of Universalists should avoid theology in casual conversation.

On the other hand, we were led to understand that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln were our soul brothers, even if they never joined the church, and reminded that the membership included John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, William Howard Taft, and Adlai Stevenson. This distinguished liberal family might be a prideful stretch in some ways, but a simple truth the Christian Right deplores is that America was not founded or defined by Holy Rollers.

Universalism is still dear to me; I think it's inspiring that Enlightenment intellectuals and unlettered Appalachian Baptists arrived at the same sweet doctrine from entirely different traditions and assumptions. Early on, I moved beyond the church's teachings and decided that the Creator of the universe, if such an entity existed, was unlikely to resemble human beings in any way. If by some quirk he/she did, however, it would certainly be the rarer, finer part of the human package the Creator would reflect-mercy, forgiveness-and not the nasty piece that includes violence, sadism, and revenge. That settled it for hell, of course, and also for the vain bully who passes for God in the Old Testament. I used to say, whistling past the gates of hell, that I had no interest in any God who seemed meaner and dumber than I was. Or weirder. Read Leviticus for a mind-bending crash course in the obsessive-compulsive personality.

"Atheist" is a title I never coveted. The bestselling atheist authors like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens seem recklessly dismissive to me, and the God they reject, the alpha-male Yahweh with a lot of attitude and a lot of rules, is an easy target unworthy of their intellects. The grumpy God who rewards or punishes is a children's God, designed, like the devil, to make simple people behave. More challenging definitions of God have enriched the theological conversation for a long, long time. Back in the seventeenth century, the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, sitting grinding lenses in his shop in The Hague, conceived of a God inseparable from Nature, from Creation-"God is the world" sums up Avishai Margalit's interpretation of Spinoza's deity.

Novalis described the ascetic genius Spinoza as a "God-intoxicated man," and his God encompassed everything that humbled humanity and stretched the limits of its understanding and imagination. Though "agnostic" is a label that concedes human ignorance in a modest way I respect, I'd rather be called a "pantheist," a Spinozan like Emerson, like Einstein. "God is the awareness of the infinite in each of us," Annie Dillard wrote once, and that simple formula works for me. I may be ignorant and skeptical but I'm not insensible, not incurious, not emptied of spiritual potential.

In a nutshell-not a hard shell-that's how it looks to me now, with final things not so far ahead as they used to be. What's the difference between my testimony and the preaching of Pat Robertson or even Billy Graham? For one thing, there's not a missionary bone in my body. If everyone who read this suddenly decided that I was a hundred percent right, I'd begin to lose confidence that I was on the right track. The biggest problem with organized religions, especially with fundamentalist religions from Gainesville to Kandahar, is that they require and compel consensus. The important part of religion is what you believe when you're in your room alone, not what you profess to believe in a crowd of believers. Alone in that room, your remote corner of the all-wired Global Village, you can send out a spiritual message in search of a soul mate. Or, to be on the safe side, you can even keep it to yourself. As I know I'll manage to do, someday soon. 

Art: "Wild Man with Fire" (2004) by Nancy Baker, courtesy of Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta, and Flanders Gallery, Raleigh.

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