Church and State(liness) in the South

“Bless your heart.”

It’s no surprise that the South, and Alabama, in particular, is religious to its core. Religion’s influence is everywhere: Little white churches dot the highways, Jesus the lyrics of songs on the radio, and biblical terminology the vocabulary of third graders and soccer moms alike.

Alabama’s relationship with Christianity, however, is far more intimate than colloquial phrases and rooftop crosses may suggest. Though convention dictates the separation of church and state, Alabama, at least in its expectation of decorum, views the two as one unit. Because Alabama places such emphasis on propriety as a prerequisite for being a good citizen, its largely religious character tends to carry into its social expectations. As a result, perceived decency hinges not so much on an adherence to the Christian faith as an adherence to its southern aesthetic. This aesthetic has become synonymous with that which is considered proper.

I was most recently reminded of this the last time I wore shorts on a 90-degree, early Sunday afternoon and found myself on the receiving end of some questioning stares. As I uncomfortably waited in line for an acai bowl at a trendy new shop, the shop slowly swelled with a few families who, it appeared, had decided to drop by after service at a church nearby. Though the looks never lasted for more than a second or so, disapproval became increasingly palpable as I willed myself to blend into the wall behind me—to no avail. As their eyes tracked my outright dash for the door, it finally hit me: Nobody really cared if I went to Sunday service, they just wanted me to look like I did.

Despite its reputation, most of the state’s religious community acts the same way you’d expect a pair of good neighbors to act whenever you saw them. They greet you with a smile, offer some sweet tea and a Bible verse, invite you to their next event (be that a dinner party or a service), and peacefully let you slip away. Invariably, they’re happy when you do accept their invitation but harbor no harsh judgements when you don’t until, regardless of what you choose, and a few weeks later they see you and extend the invitation again.

However, even with neighbors, certain two-way expectations serve as prerequisites for this amicable dynamic to exist. Just as you wouldn’t expect good-natured waves as you pull into the driveway when you’ve thrown wild ragers every weekday for the last month and a half, Sunday brunch in anything less than your Sunday best puts a similar kind of tension in the air. Furthermore, the disapproval doesn’t necessarily stem from a religious place, at least overtly. Christian tradition has so deeply imprinted itself onto southern culture that its practices and tenets feel just as natural as any other social norm. This makes sense since, for the most part, these practices and tenets align quite nicely with the behavior we already expect of one another. Still, there can be moments of awkward disconnect when they don’t pair up quite as nicely, leaving behind the bitter aftertaste of mental dissonance on both sides.

In this sense, people in the South do not usually push any kind of religious agenda with the intention of doing so. Instead, they find themselves in a world that so frequently parallels their own beliefs and routines that it comes as a fairly jarring shock when it doesn’t. I find this dynamic just as likely to bring people together as to push people apart, and it therefore should be something that anyone who wants to pursue an open and honest conversation should be aware of.

On one hand, these expectations lend a nice sense of cohesion to the South, since just about anything that satisfies these social conditions is tolerated and accepted. Almost counterintuitively, this makes it possible for some pretty big conversations to take place without fear of stigmatization or backlash when you’re following the customs, since it makes it feel as though, regardless of minute differences in opinion, everyone is coming from the same place. On the other hand, in countless moments just like this one, it creates a feeling of intense, if fleeting, alienation when you find yourself outside of them. It’s as though failing to adhere to one societal expectation suddenly makes you guilty of actively rejecting all of them.

Thus, instead of prematurely closing dialogues with a sickly-sweet blessing or writing the South off as fanatical, the greatest benefit may come from simply continuing the conversation and actively searching for common ground, even when a first impression yields none. Otherwise, this expectation of rigid adherence to custom can staunch not only conversations, but the compromises and advances that result from them, reinforcing both the illusion of cultural uniformity and the feeling of alienation borne out of failing to conform to it.

Anastasia Sorochinsky ’21 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.