At the turn of the century, I taught at a small college in a rural part of North Carolina. It was an election year, and when I went to vote at a firehouse in the middle of nowhere, two nice ladies working the polls doted sweetly on my young daughter while I examined the ballot.
As I tried to concentrate on candidates, the women asked me if I had found a church home, and invited me to visit theirs. Raised Baptist in this state, I am accustomed to God-talk in casual conversation, but their invitation caught me off guard. They pushed an upcoming revival, and told me that I didn't have to go to their church, as long as I went to church somewhere.
I was so addled, I'm still not sure for whom I voted that year.
The Southern part of the United States is a religious place. Though more varied than it was even a few years ago, most of that religion is of the Christian sort. If you live here, visited here, or read William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, or any other Southern author, you're already aware of that. We have atheists in the South, too, but we know deep down in our hearts that Jesus resides in theirs.
In his seminal 1941 book, The Mind of the South, North Carolina newspaperman W. J. Cash wrote that during the World War I Progressive Era, "we discover the Southern ministers rising swiftly toward the zenith of their power." Cash noted the influence of clergy in the extension of laws curbing liquor and gambling, as well as blue laws restricting Sunday shopping. The power of the Southern minister has risen and fallen over the decades (e.g., Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.), but the present era finds a bounty of religion on both sides of social issues in the region, especially in the growing purple state of North Carolina.
The hot button topic of the moment is passage of N.C. House Bill 2, called the "bathroom law" since it requires transgender people to use public toilets that coincide with their birth gender. This moniker is deceptive, as the law also affects local municipalities' ability to raise wages, prohibits suing for discrimination in state courts, and provides no job protections for the LGBT community.
In headlines around the globe, HB2 is often referred to as the "bias law," which describes it rather accurately. Corporations and entertainers have condemned it, resulting in concert and convention cancellations, and several companies have put expansion plans on hold.
The law has its fans as well as its detractors. When the General Assembly convened on April 25 for the first day of the session, lawmakers saw dueling rallies -- both led by clergy -- outside of the state government complex.
Opponents of HB2 heard fiery sermonizing from the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber III, president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. In 2013, so-called Moral Monday protests led by Barber began in earnest. Each Monday that year and on many occasions since, the pastor led marches and rallies against policies enacted by the state's Republican majority, and sees HB2 as just one more harmful measure inflicted upon the disenfranchised.
Religious forces against HB2 tend to be diverse. According to a local television station, "Forty-five rabbis signed a letter expressing 'deep dismay' with House Bill 2, and all eight bishops of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina and four bishops of the Episcopal Church in the state issued similar letters in recent days."
The larger, pro-government rally on opening day 2016 was bolstered by Christian churches and schools that bused in supporters of HB2 from all over the state. Pledges were recited to the United States flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.
Supporters see HB2 as a common sense law. "We happened to believe that we are correct," Jack Mashburn of the Christian Action League said. "And we are going to stand passionately for HB2. We are not going to be ill toward those who disagree. But we are not going to apologize either for the position that we are taking in support of HB2."
Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "... I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God."
God-talk permeates the South, especially our politics. Like kneading dough, religion is the ingredient that adds strength to the region, and sometimes pulls it apart.