My Southern Experience: Religion (& Politics) And The South

The South is religious, right?

That’s the stereotype.

Maybe it’s only in appearance. An attendee at my presentation in Minneapolis theorized that Minnesotans are just as religious. But they’re Lutheran–so are reserved, don’t wear their spirituality on their sleeve, and conduct a drastically different worship style.

Short of any research on who is more spiritual, I can at least attest to the fact that Southerners, in general, are indeed more expressive in their faith.

I experienced these expressions on my journey through the South last summer in three ways:

  • Seeing (and hearing) signs from the road
  • Talking religion and politics with a Tennessee State Representative
  • Going to a church service

1. Signs along the way:

Religiosity in the South was apparent without even leaving the car.

Even through the small towns, one couldn’t count the number of churches on one hand. This actually wasn’t too dissimilar from my small hometown in the north, except these Southern housed-sized houses of worship weren’t Lutheran. They represented other denominations of Protestantism: mainly, Pentecostal and Baptist. And like the outspoken Christians they were, even their buildings had something to say:

I was also struck by the Bible Belt within my car. Channel surfing the radio meant catching a few spiritual waves as you glide by the Southern terrain. I listened here and there to several examples of Southern preachers on the air. Here’s a clip of an animated sermon heard when driving through Arkansas:

From the farm home in Alabama (which we visited last time), such audio kept me company driving through the darkness until arriving to Cleveland, Tennessee late July 30.

Cleveland, Tennessee (the green point) was the fourth of my five major stops on this journey.

Here, I stayed with another host from the travel network Couchsurfing.com. Phil Hoover, himself, was a religious man. And through him I was introduced to the two other exposures of Southern religiosity: religion’s influence on politics, and accompanying Phil to a church service.

2. The Bishop Politician

Cleveland, Tennessee, it should first be known, is the home to worldwide headquarters of not one, not two, but five different sects of the Pentecostalism. It is home to Lee University, a renowned Pentecostal private college. Which sect? Before heading South, I didn’t think it was important to distinguish. In fact, I was surprised to learn about different Pentecostal sects. I shouldn’t have been. I knew this about Lutheranism. Perhaps also like Lutherans, the distinctions between the sects are minor to outsiders. To many practitioners, though, these differences are significant.

It probably comes as no surprise that this corner of Tennessee is the most conservative district in the state–this according to the state representative from this region, Representative Kevin Brooks.

“I’m R-E-V before R-E-P,” he said correcting me as he, Phil, and I sat down for breakfast at the famous Southern eatery, Cracker Barrel on August 1.

In other words, Mr. Brooks puts his faith and his role as a ordained bishop of his church as primary to his role as his district’s representative to the Tennessee capitol in Nashville.

“This man has deep, deep roots in the Pentecostal charismatic tradition,” Phil said of his old college buddy.

Today, Rep. Bishop Brooks (left) and Phil (right) remain close, but they have parted religiously. Well, they’re both Pentecostal. But Bishop Brooks belongs to the Pentecostal Church of God. (He also works for the church.) Meanwhile, Phil attends a different Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God of Prophesy.

Throughout our conversation, different aspects of religion-political interplay surfaced.

“My opponent said he was more pro-life than me, which is crazy,” said Rep. Bishop Brooks in speaking about his previous political battle.

“You don’t get more pro-life than 100%,” agreed Phil.

Though Brooks is Republican, he wasn’t referring to his Democratic opponent. In this part of the country, the real race is for who will become the party nominee (the primary contest). It’s the same where I come from. Except it’s the opposite. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the contest for the Democratic nomination determines who will be the ultimate winner. General elections–in Minneapolis and Cleveland–against other parties candidates is merely a formality, as both areas lean heavily in one political direction.

This wasn’t the only “same-but-opposite” political comparison I made. Throughout the region, I asked several folks about the upcoming presidential election. Generally speaking, if Trump was their guy, they’d offer it up nonchalantly. But if they preferred Clinton, getting them to admit it was sometimes a struggle. It appeared to be taboo to do so in many parts of the South. In Minneapolis-St. Paul it’s the same thing. Except it’s the opposite. Trump supporters have been underground due to social pressures.

Speaking about the presidential race at Cracker Barrel, Bishop Brooks and Phil revealed their foundation of faith:

“It shows me how much of a moral morass we’re in,” said Phil of the fact American had to choose between two disliked candidates.

“We’ve fallen into it,” replied Brooks.

“It shows me how much of the judgement of God we are under,” continued Phil. “It shows me how far we have gone into our own depravity.”

After a cup of coffee, Phil had to get to work. Rep. Bishop Brooks and I continued our conversation over breakfast.

When our meals arrived, Brooks prayed over our meal. “Bless this meal. Thank you for bringing Brandon here safely…”

Brooks shared his thoughts on his role in Tennessee politics:

“The Bible talks about being a light in the darkness, and that is such a dark place.”

“What is?” I asked.

“The capital, politics, government.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, my goodness, yeah…” he responded immediately. “I have people that pray for me daily. You do walk into a lion’s den of gun rights and gay rights and everything in between.”

I’d always seen Tennessee as a place where government would be largely influenced by religion. But from the perspective of a bishop from the most conservative county in the state, the government in Nashville lacks God.

“In the government realm, faith isn’t talked about very often… I don’t think that’s what our Founding Fathers intended,” explained Brooks. “I think our forefathers were men of faith, and I think that that’s expressed in all our founding documents.”

He summed up his role and his philosophy on politics and religion: “I am an ordained bishop who serves in the state, so I am a living example that there is no separation of church and state.”

This philosophy seemed to work well for Rep. Bishop Brooks, as a winning candidate and as a man of the people.

Men from another table approached Brooks as we wrapped up.

Bishop Kevin Brooks went out of his way to make time for his constituents. I thank him for taking the time to meet with a writer from another part of the country.

Rep. Brooks gifting me the Tennessee state legislative manual

3. The Church Service

The day before meeting with the Rep. Bishop Brooks, Phil took me to his church. The experience reminded me of charismatic houses of worship in the Twin Cities: contemporary architecture and a theater-style sanctuary; modern sound system and large screens displaying song lyrics; and a worship format of song & praise, inspired preaching, and a finale of worshipers coming to the altar for blessings.

Yes, the South is religious. For the people I met in Cleveland, and for countless others throughout the region, religion isn’t just a thread running through their lives, it’s the fabric that makes up their life.

It’s part of what makes this region special.

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Have a story or question about the South? Offer it in the comments below. If interested in learning more about my travels, writing, and presentations, please write to me at brandon@theperiphery.com.

 

What say you?