[Marxism] Latest From Joe Bageant
aymery at ix.netcom.com
Wed Mar 23 07:28:36 MST 2005
Sunday in a red state
By Joe Bageant
If Jesus reappeared on earth tomorrow it would probably be at
Daytona or a Cracker Barrel Restaurant.
---Punk Wilson, local wiseass
Indeed, Cracker Barrel has to be the most appropriately named
restaurant chain in America. The last time I entered one with an out-of-
town black friend, nearly all heads turned in unison toward us. My
friend took one look at the wall-to-wall porky white faces and said,
"Get me back to the fucking car. I can grab a happy meal on the way
out of Deliverance."
Nevertheless, I'd be the first to admit that the food at Cracker Barrel
is damned good for a chain restaurant
authentic white trash taters
and beans. To be authentic Southern food it has to be inauthentic in a
trashy sort of way, but still flavorful, if you know what I mean. It's one
of those things like serving store brand cola with a tomato and
mayonnaise white bread sandwich in the summer---authentic.
Anyway, if Cracker Barrel ever perfects a catfish batter the fare will
be legit honky soul food.
So I am at a Cracker Barrel on the Virginia/West Virginia line with my
minister brother following his Sunday worship service this morning.
Located not far from the church where Brother preaches, the place is
always jammed on Sundays with pie-and-coffee Christian
fundamentalists, plus a smattering of blue-collar Yankee tourists
down from Pennsylvania to paw over the gift shop's Taiwanese
hillbilly crafts and rebel flag beach towels.
The customers, mostly beefy well-scrubbed locals, are shaking hands
and slapping backs as if they don't see one another three times a
week in church: "How ARE yall! My, my, my, you look SO GOOD
Sister Clark!" As much as I love their familiar ways, I'm sorry to say
that I do not like fundamentalist Christians much. Particularly in
groups. They tend to pack up like wolves and become hypocritical,
mouthy and intolerant. It reminds me too much of myself when I'm
Even after all these years I'm still a bit surprised my little brother is a
preacher. He's not like that at all---mouthy and hypocritical, I mean. I
shouldn't be surprised though. We have any number of "brush
preachers" in our family tree, Pentecostals and Baptists mainly. And
our parents did meet at a Billy Graham tent revival during the Second
World War. In my generation of Bageants however, the Holy Spirit
seems to swell through the decades like a fire shut up in the bones. At
some point in all their lives it bursts into the flame of conversion.
Except for me.
I escaped the Christian life almost 40 years ago to eat LSD, consider
Buddhism and let a couple of marriages go to hell. Eventually, to my
family's amazement and relief, I managed to come to rest with a far
better woman than I deserve, two dogs and high enough blood
pressure to keep me scared back a respectable distance from the
My brother's church is what is known as an "independent Baptist
church." Independent enough of your world and mine that he says
things like, "I helped cast out my first demon yesterday, Joey. I wish
you could have been there." Actually, I do too. Independent
fundamentalist churches are wild and woolly places theologically,
whose characteristics and belief systems can accommodate just about
anything "Preacher Bob" or "Pastor Donnie" or preacher whomever
can come up with from misreading the Good Book. The "clergy" arise
from within the church ranks and are usually poorly educated. (Hell
they went to public school in America, didn't they?) This has always
been true of American fundamentalism since the backwoods stump
church days, and it continues to provide the nation with charismatic
literalists whose reading and abstracting ability is minimal to zilch.
Combine that with 30 years of Christian school growth, and you can
begin to understand how we got in such deep shit today
many states find themselves revamping their educational systems so
that the fables of Adam and Eve may replace Darwin and we can all
be reassured that David slew Goliath despite the complete lack of
evidence of either's existence.
Yet, look across the congregations of these churches and you see
these aren't bad people. They are neither a minority nor a cult in this
nation, given their millions, and are simply what the ordinary
Americans are today---working class people whose interior lives
were clobbered by the Twentieth Century. Unaware of it as they are,
theirs is part of a global revival of fundamentalism, which emerged
when triumphant materialism arrived in the wake of the enlightenment.
Poor dear enlightenment! So brief! Then smashed by two world wars,
Verdun, Dresden, Auschwitz, the gulags, nuclear weapons, impending
Not that anyone in this church ever heard of the
enlightenment. Two generations of them were raised in Christian
schools amid the unyielding hostility and fear of the Cold War and
declining real wages and education. Is it any wonder they are so
attracted to the Apocalypse both materially and literally? From home
as they know it in this world, you look out the window what you see
is the approaching end of the fucking world.
In response, they long ago collected themselves in what amount to
mental and theological compounds, built thousands of Christian
institutions and schools and trained two generations for a theocratic
state. Fundamentalist thinker Gary North announced decades ago,
"We will train up a generation of people who know that there is no
religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral
civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based
social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious
liberty of the enemies of God."
Well, they've done it.
But returning to the Cracker Barrel
Brother is attacking his
meatloaf and pungent, heavily peppered green beans with heart-
warming enthusiasm. Graying and handsome, his dark suit is stylish for
a preacher in his type of church. It being hunting season, he has
launched into deer-hunting story. Whenever he feels awkward with
me he tells a hunting story. Brother uses the same guns our daddy
used, hell, it's the same ones our grandpap used. Like them, he is a
hunter who puts at least two bucks and a doe in the freezer every year
and could probably bring home the same given only a bag of rocks to
hunt with. If there is a hunting gene, he's got it. Ours is the kind of
family where the first question asked after the death of a father is:
"Who gets Daddys' guns?" Alien as that sounds to many of urban
folks, millions of Americans will nod and smile at the familiarity of that
observation from their own family experience.
Deer hunting is the second religion of many red states and especially
here in the Blue Ridge. The echoing crack of a distant deer rifle or the
wild chilly smell of a deer hanging under a porch light bulb on a snowy
night still bewitches me with the same mountain folk animism it did
when I was a boy. But I have not hunted in twenty-five years and
never expect to again. So my mind drifts as he talks of hunting.
Through the window are bleak gray-brown ridges full of unseen
hunters. Brother's stalking of souls for Jesus is much like a deer hunt.
Lots of quiet waiting for the exact moment of truth.
When I look at my brother, a kind man, an essentially brave and
hardworking one, exemplary of all those things an American is
supposed to be, I see that one of the biggest and most overlooked
political events in America is how millions of people such as him and
his flock were moved out of the apolitical camp into Christian
activism. And how, despite all their claims of independence, these
churches were so deeply shaped by modern zealots of the past thirty
years. Yet the churches are unaware that the original source of their
theological ideas is the dark, strange coterie of reconstructionist
Christians, who want to stone homosexuals, kill disobedient children
and build a theocratic state through the establishment of "Biblical Law"
in America. (Go to www.theocracywatch.org or read anything by
scholar of American fundamentalism Frederick Clarkson.) Via
Presbyterian oriented educators, the Baptist school headmasters and
pastors, and the charismatic telecommunications system, the radicals
have managed to shape hundreds of thousands of Pentecostals and
charismatic Christians, as well as many fundamentalist Baptists, not
merely as voters, but as ideological activists for a reconstructed
"Biblical world view" in government, law, education, the arts and
foreign policy. As Fred Clarkson puts it: "Whether it is Operation
Rescue activists called to anti-abortion work because of Francis
Schaeffer's books, or Pentecostals who responded to the politicizing
ministry and electoral ambitions of Pat Robertson during the 1970s
and 1980s, this radical radicalization of Protestants is one of the major
stories of modern American politics." Watching Brother mop up the
last of his bean juice with his biscuit here at the Cracker Barrel, you
would never guess he is at the center of such a storm. Yet he
understands that he and his kind are at a pivotal point, thought they
would put it in terms of the hand of Satan in the world instead of
Lunch over, we head for the door and Brother says, "Joe, you know
there is something we're got to talk about --- your salvation." Nothing
makes me more anxious than when he wants to talk about getting me
saved. And he wants to talk about it every damned time we get
together, which for that very reason is not very often.
"Joe, I don't wanna be up there in heaven with daddy and God
without you," he says with a pleading look. "Will you be saved?"
"There is time enough for that," I hedge.
"None knoweth the hour," he replies. After thirty years of being jolted
by this question you'd think I'd have come up with a better answer by
now. But only one answer will ever satisfy him. We walk outside into
that kind of cold that makes your face hurt. Brother stops in front of
his blue Toyota truck. Again that pleading look comes to his brown
eyes. "I never did finish my deer-hunting story," he says. (It's too
damned cold out here to be spinning yarns, as far as I'm concerned
but, then, I've told you about the politeness thing
"Wellsir, that ole' buck come into view and this time I know I've got
A shudder moves through me. My legs feel limp.
"That buck looked right at me for the longest time. Square and straight
on. I could see the sky like heaven in his eyes." Brother's voice is
The icy brown hills undulate around us
a leaden sky presses down
and down, closer, closer, only to shatter revealing a piercing silver
canopy. A roar fills my head.
"I raised up Pap's old '94
His hand comes to rest on my shoulder, heavy, yet weightless. An
uncontrollable shaking grips me. The barren leafless ridges now ripple
like stubbled backs of great beasts and a sharp rising wind groans
long forgotten passages
I lift mine eyes unto the hills
cometh my strength
Brother's face is flooded with a beautiful and terrible awe as he stalks
"The sights settled right in on his heart
I know that right about here you are thinking I got saved. I didn't.
Instead, I recovered myself rather like a man falling from great heights
who manages to grab onto that awning on the way down. It happens
every time. It is being on the edge of the most exalted release, then
pulling back because it also means the death of self as you know it.
Would not life be a hell of a lot easier with our past sins, all the terrible
things that make us wince at their recollection, placed solidly on the
everlasting shoulders of Jesus? A clean start?
So does the man who caught the awning on the way down feel even
one smidgen of relief? Hell no. he just stands there in the parking lot
uncomfortable as the proverbial whore in church, looking at his
brother who is choking back his disappointment -- no, not
disappointment, outright inconsolable sorrow. He is near tears. I grasp
at the air, trying to lighten things up and, blame it on stupidity, I even
try to broach the subject lightly.
"One thing for sure little brother," I say. "These near misses got to
stop. My ole heart ain't what it used to be."
"Oh, I didn't miss that buck," he says, a rigid grin now locked onto his
face. "I nailed him at about two hundred yards." As I said, we are
people who know the subtext but never comment on it. Sometimes it
can jump right up and thump us upside the head and we still ignore it.
The snow flurries thicken as we say our goodbyes to another distant
crack of a deer rifle. One more time I, the prodigal brother, have been
snatched from proffered grace by pride's certain hand. Like the hand
that pulls the trigger, bringing down the unsuspecting twelve-point
buck, the hand of pride pulls me back into its own dominion, back
across the waters of Babylon, a river so deep and wide even blood
and brotherhood cannot breach it. Who am I to say that hand is not
best called Satan's?
Joe Bageant is a writer and editor living in Winchester, Virginia. For
Joe's "Git down and pound the floor cause it tastes so good" catfish
batter recipe, email bageantjb at netscape.net. (It's all in the cornmeal,
folks!) Copyright 2005 by Joe Bageant.
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