Unbuckling the Bible belt—don’t wait for the church to promote harmony and diversity in the post-Ferguson era
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest contributor MARTIN LEHFELDT, former Georgia Humanities board member and former president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, asks readers to consider diversity in a new light.
By Martin Lehfeldt
People in the South go to church. That’s a fact. They also attend worship services at synagogues and mosques and Hindu temples and Baha’i centers. For the moment, though, I want to focus on the ones who encouraged H. L. Mencken to describe us as the “Bible Belt.”
I’ve read the figures about the shrinking numbers of ecclesiastical members, but as Benjamin Disraeli (not a southerner but a pretty astute fellow) reportedly observed, “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.” People down our way go to church. If you don’t believe me, pull up to the Cracker Barrel that is closest to any small town in Georgia around noon on any Sunday and try to get a seat for lunch. The line of Baptists and maybe some Methodists who’ve just come from church stretches into the parking lot. I rest my case: ours is a religious region.
Now, ours is also a region that is rich in ambivalence and ambiguity. It may well be true that there are lots of congregations who would proudly lay claim to being the buckle on that Biblical belt. And many of their members grew up with the King James Version of the Bible and memorized all of the words of Jesus — easily identified because they were printed in red ink. But sad to say, a lot of these folks have limited recall. Once out the door of the sanctuary, the relevance of popular pieties like the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount seems to lose a lot of its kick.
So, where am I going with this? Well, like many of you, I’ve been deeply concerned by the racially-divisive events in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere and have recognized that they could just as easily have occurred in our municipalities. And, like you, I’ve been wondering what it will take for us to embrace the value of building diverse communities that are characterized by justice and marked by compassion.
What I’ve concluded is that we might need to be looking in some other directions for our answers. I’m all for our religious institutions promoting communal harmony, but the fact of the matter is, they don’t seem to have done a real good job. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-religious. I even have a permit hanging from the rearview mirror in my car that enables me to park in the “clergy only” spaces behind Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. But I’d like to offer three alternative and somewhat practical reasons for promoting diversity that have nothing to do with theology or ethics and encourage you to consider adopting them, too:
1) I prefer my life to be interesting. I can think of few things more boring than to be in a room or neighborhood full of old, white, middle-class people like me with similar backgrounds and opinions. After a while, seeing yourself in the mirror gets mighty tiresome.
2) I’d like to be as knowledgeable as possible about what’s happening around me. That’s why I read Maria Saporta’s column and hang out with people from Georgia Humanities. And if I’m not getting an African American or, for that matter, Latin American or Asian American perspective on a situation, I am operating with insufficient information. Over the years I’ve discovered that limited knowledge is not the best foundation for good judgment.
3) Finally, by looking for opportunities to meet and spend time with different people, I’ve learned that all races and nationalities include people of varying sizes, shapes, shades, and personalities. That discovery has actually freed me to make value judgments about individuals. I don’t have to be hung up by either ignorance or guilt. If someone is a genius, I can proclaim her to be a genius no matter what her color or native origin. By the same token, if someone is a sorry sumbitch, then, regardless of his pigmentation or accent, he’s still a sorry sumbitch.
To be sure, this approach isn’t an especially gracious or noble way to confront the situation, but I personally have found it to be refreshingly liberating. It might even help us to build some of those enrichingly diverse communities that we badly need.
Martin Lehfeldt, a former Georgia Humanities Council board member and the former president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, has spent his entire career in the nonprofit sector, for which he still writes, consults, and volunteers.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.