05 September 2004

Naipaul's Nashville: Baptists

Naipaul titles his chapter on Nashville, "Sanctities": referring to both religion and music.
The magazine in my hotel room, mixing its metaphors, said that Nashville was "the buckle of the Bible Belt." Churches took up twelve pages of the Yellow Pages directory. The Tennessean had a "religion news" editor, and there was a weekly page of "religion news," with many advertisements for churches (especially Church of Christ churches), some with a photograph of the stylish-looking pastor or preacher. Most of the Protestants in Nashville belonged to the fundamentalist frontier faiths; the predominant denomination was the Southern Baptist.

The classier churches, the Presbyterian and the Episcopalian, looked at this Baptist predominance from a certain social distance, without rancor or competitiveness.

Dr. Tom Ward, the Episcopalian pastor of Christ Church, said that the Southern Baptists who sometimes came to his church found it too quiet: "'Y'all don't preach.' The Baptist ethos is the preached word. Which is the ethos of the Christian church in the South. Preaching meaning the emotional speech rather than the learned essay of the Church of England--preaching the word and counting the number of saved souls. But I have to say this. To say, 'I'm a Southern Baptist,' is another way of saying, 'I'm a Southerner.' What I mean is that that is the ethos, religiously. What is buried in their psyches is the fear of hellfire and damnation. My father was read out of the United Methodist Church in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1931--when he was seventeen--because he went to a dance. That's the Methodist Church. A lot of the Ku Klux Klan literature is Christian. Revivalism--why? To rekindle the spirit. What spirit? One bad step; many bad steps; and you have the Ku Klux Klan."

The Presbyterian pastor of Westminster, K. C. Ptomey, agreed that the Southern Baptist identity was in part the Southern identity. "That's very accurate. You see, a Southern Baptist distinguishes himself from an American Baptist. American Baptists are much more open-minded; they are not so rigid. I would add about the Southern Baptists: it has to do with sharing biblical literalism; it has to do with morality. For example, to be a Southern Baptist is to be a teetotaler. Morality, dancing, drinking--it encompasses the whole of life."

I asked him about the revivalism. "The revivalist mind-set is 'to get back to God.' You often hear the words used."


"'Lost' is the word they use. And what they mean by that is 'damned.' And therefore they need to be revived."
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 233-234.

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