The summer after seventh grade my grandmother sent one of my cousins and me to a snooty boys’ camp up in New Hampshire. For me it wasn’t a great fit (who were these people?), but I tried to be a good sport. Around the campfire on skit night, I was asked to spell “yankee.” Hamming it up and following the script, I began to drawl, “D . . . A . . . M . . . .”
“Wait, wait,” hollered the MC. “What are you doing?”
“Wheah I come from, son,” I drawled on, “it’s all one word.” Which, despite the play-acting, was exactly how I felt.
This was also the summer after that ur-reality show, “Candid Camera,” sent its goon squad into the hills of Tennessee and asked the folks in the little rural community to say the word “oil.” The answer just about all of them gave was “awl,” or maybe “awul.” Point being: at this alien hellhole (from which I demanded to return home after two weeks, while my less sensitive cousin stayed on for the whole month), when I wasn’t being asked to spell “yankee,” some obnoxious cretin was my face with “Hey, Yow, say ‘oil.’”
I mean, what do you say? What I said was, “Oil, you dumb shit, OIL!”
Have I established my credentials? I’m a southerner, proud of it, and prejudiced to the bone. But the South’s not perfect, and since the national media love nothing better than to laugh at our failings and foolishness, I sometimes think we ought to dial it back a little bit.
I’m thinking, of course, of the recent mass baptism on the football field at Villa Rica High School. One of the coaches cooked up the entertainment with a local pastor, and on a recent afternoon before practice 18 team members, along with the coach, took turns in the dunking tub. Word got out in advance, as it was meant to, and throngs of on-lookers applauded.
It would be one thing, I suppose, if the newly-saved had headed quietly home after the event, somber from the experience, with nothing more to be said. But this was pure P. T. Barnum—the event videoed and posted on YouTube. And I’m sure that both coach and pastor anticipated with glee the letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, which took about a nanosecond to arrive. Surprise: the baptism was in violation of the First Amendment, and, specifically, of 2003 Federal guidelines mandating that “teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities.”
Gee, thanks, but so what? Are the kids and the coach and the preacher going to take it back? They’re in the spotlight—thank you, Jesus!—having the time of their lives. It’s like the reverend said: “I need to send those [Freedom from Religion] people a thank-you letter because what they’ve done is ignited the base.”
Honestly, I wonder why Freedom from Religion rises to the bait, why it insists on playing its predictable role in this tawdry drama. Well, I guess I do know why, but still, doesn’t it sound like a bunch of people who don’t have enough to do, or worse, a bunch of damn yankees who don’t have enough to do?
As for our part, though, don’t we have to confess that we bring it on ourselves? We say we just want to be left alone, but it looks to me like we can’t stand to be left alone. I say let’s turn down the volume, and see if we can’t get the do-gooders to go bother somebody else.