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Jamil's Georgia

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

Martin Lehfeldt

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.

Clergy-only parking behind Manuel's Tavern in Atlanta. Photo: Jimmy Jacobs

Clergy-only parking behind Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. Photo: Jimmy Jacobs

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.

Jamil Zainaldin

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.



  1. jzmorgan June 16, 2015 10:26 am

    You imply that all church congregations are “full of old, white, middle-class people … with similar backgrounds and opinions,” and because of this, our religious institutions “don’t seem to have done a real good job” of promoting communal harmony and thus, we need to look “in some other directions for our answers.” I would argue that you have overlooked several diverse congregations in Atlanta, like Skyland UMC, which is diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status and age, and hosts bilingual (Spanish and English) services. I would also argue that there is no better place to look for answers to our struggles with realizing communal harmony than Jesus, who teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and shows us that any person we meet is our neighbor and deserves our compassionate response. If it appears that “religious institutions” have done a poor job of promoting communal harmony, it is because they are made of imperfect people living imperfect lives. But the places where I have seen the most communal harmony are those where people are truly trying to live out and follow the perfect example of Jesus – and that has been, incidentally, in places where Jesus’ life and example are taught: in church. It would be a mistake to blame Jesus for the lack of communal harmony you say exists in many churches in the Bible Belt – blame it on the people who say they believe in Him but their actions show otherwise, who merely go to church instead of DOing church in their daily lives.Report

  2. DrFrankSmith June 16, 2015 9:06 pm

    jzmorgan  I agree with jzmorgan.  The only hope for reconciliation not only with God but among those in society who might be tempted to be hostile toward one another is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ–the gospel of salvation by faith alone by grace alone which is preached in true manifestations of His church.  She recommended Skyland UMC.  Let me respectfully suggest that your readers try Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship (http://www.atlantapresbyterian.church/), a very diverse ministry in the English Avenue area of Atlanta, where there is no racial or socio-economic tension–indeed, the harmony is palpable.
    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    Minister, Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship (RPCNA)
    President, Tyndale International University, Los Angeles, California
    Part-Time Instructor, Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville, GeorgiaReport


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