Soon after moving to the Bible Belt from Boston, my daughters asked me what Christmas was. They were four and five. I felt ill-equipped to provide a comprehensive answer, so I suggested that we go and do a little field research, as it was holiday time. I looked in the local newspaper to find a church that was having a service that we could attend. It turns out it was a Baptist church, right around the corner. We put on dresses and went, three non-Christian girls, feeling part of the global village, trekking into the heart of broad-mindedness and community.
A nice man gave us candles to hold, with paper cups on the bottom to catch the drips. The chapel had three balconies and ballroom chandeliers that could have been at the Met. Ninety-seven thousand people sang in a choir. The soloist could have been at the Met.
We looked around at the people, who looked just like us, though their clothes were fancier. I had explained to the girls how Christianity was different from Judaism. I told them the minister would give a speech the same way that their rabbi does. He started out okay, but then he said that the Jews were evil murderers. Just like you'd say daffodils are yellow. And here I was, a displaced Jewish New Yorker, sitting respectfully in his pew in an effort to teach my children tolerance and good will. No one stood up and said, "Hey, that's not nice." No one flinched, no one dropped their mouths, agape.
In the 10 years since our first lesson in comparative religion, I have come to learn that here, even if they are more tempered than my neighborhood Baptist guy, a lot of people filter their lives through their faith. This is not a notion that people in other places meet up with every day, I do not think. I didn't confront it when I lived in Boston, or Manhattan or Chicago.
Here, it is all a blur. You can look in the Yellow Pages to find an exterminator or an air conditioning repairman, and underneath the phone number, it will say, "Acme, a Christian Company." What does Jesus Christ have to do with palmetto bugs, I want to know? Would a non-Christian pest-hunter do a lesser job? When my kids attended the public elementary school down the street, a wall-hanging in the auditorium sported a patchwork of embroidered crosses. When I first saw it, I thought they were "t"s, from the alphabet. But then I looked more closely. Highway billboards implore lost souls to "Get Jesus," instead of milk. Soccer teams of twelve year olds recite The Lord's Prayer before games. Chrome fishes, symbols of Christian devotion, are mounted on the backs of cars. There is rarely a hint of Kwanzaa or Hanukkah as the trees light up in town parks maintained by taxpayer dollars. What's most jarring, no one notices.
However, in this election year, as the vote-hungry have injected religion, forcefully, into a domain where it should not be, I'm not so sure that their followers would be so crazed all by themselves. They never used to be. I think that they are being riled up, made to think that their faith, and only theirs, has a right to impact politics and policy. I think that they are simply being used, manipulated, by the guys who want their votes. Now, how Christian is that?
I covered Rick Santorum's little prayer meeting earlier this week, at a chapel north of Dallas. The place was crammed with pastors and their wives, mostly of the evangelical type. These people, and their congregants, would appear to think that it's OK for a presidential candidate to impose his own religion on his plans for the rest of us. It is OK to belittle those who support gay rights, or to force women to give birth to rapists' babies, or to put Jesus in the White House,' according to the state senator who led the crowd in a final prayer for Mr. Santorum. They have gotten away with this sort of thinking on the hometown front. To prevent blind adherence to religious dictate from bleeding into public policy on a world stage, people who don't see this every day need to realize that the entanglement exists and it is habitual. Then, they need to remind those who are entangled that yes, you can hang a cross the size of a Volkswagen around your neck, but not on the flagpole.
I have found this to be a successful tactic, which leads me to believe that many people, even in a place with four churches at every major intersection, do not want to impose their faith on others. I have found, in fact, that when you point it out, many people feel really bad about it.
"What did Santa bring for you?" an old lady asked my daughter in the supermarket. When she told the woman that we didn't celebrate Christmas, the poor thing didn't know what to do to apologize. We said that she shouldn't worry, but I bet she took a beat before asking the question again.
When a sole "Merry Christmas" sign greeted children on the door of their class in fourth grade, the teacher who hung it nearly cried when she heard that some of the kids didn't participate. She just didn't realize. She just didn't figure it.
On my second day of work at a television station in Mississippi, my cameraman coached the other reporters. Careful, she might not be Christian. He had been to Los Angeles.
Interestingly, you can get used to it, even if you are the minority. The more you look at something, the more it becomes less odd, less unacceptable, less offensive. I do not truly believe that every person in that Baptist church agreed with their minister's claim. Half of them probably didn't hear it. Most of them likely hadn't met a Jew, evil or not. And, I do not believe that every one of them believed that God spiked the unemployment rate or willed the ice caps to melt. Because that would be really scary.
But, they have to be pulled out of the soup and reset, like faulty clocks. They need to be reminded that God is in one box and government, another, and that the voting precinct is not the church assembly hall, no matter what their favorite candidates tell them.
The following year, we went to a gospel service instead.