In the Heat of the Right (September 2003)

I grew up in an American town, a small Alabama town. It is home to farmers, soccer moms, and gang members. Residents drive tractors, sport-utility vehicles, and low-rider pick-up trucks. Although people there may seem culturally diverse, they are proud of what just about all of them share: Jesus Christ.

My mother, from Virginia, and father, from Illinois, know the outside world. They met in Madison, Wisconsin, got married, and moved to Texas, where I was born. It was not until they were in their forties that they moved to Alabama. Today, as a first-year student at Carleton College in rural Minnesota, I can almost say I miss my hometown. I miss azaleas in February and overcooked vegetables. I miss listening to the drawl of vowels and spitting watermelon seeds off the hot patio. But I do not miss religious intolerance.

It started early. No one could spend the night with me on Saturdays because they needed to go to church early the next morning. My family doesn’t attend church. In fourth grade a Jehovah’s Witness named Candace, a skinny kid with bright eyes, decided that I was to be her project. Every day at recess, I climbed the jungle gym and walked the balance beam with Candace nipping at my feet and reading the bible at me. Her persistence was neither successful nor terribly harmful to me. My parents told me that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christian extremists whose beliefs are far from mainstream. Later, they would explain the behavior of Southern fundamentalists with this logic. As their definition of “extremist” expanded to include first my peers and then my teachers, so did my fear that most people I would meet in life would deem me a bad person.

Candace gave up on my soul in fifth grade, but other kids soon picked up the slack. One day at school, some kids were talking about how their preachers had taught them that Sunday that Jews would burn in hell. I told them that my half-brother and half-sister are half-Jewish and that they weren’t headed for hell. Then Nancy, the prettiest girl in the whole fifth grade, told me and everyone else that not only my siblings, but also the rest of my family, would burn in hell because God hates Jews. This was the first and last occasion that a teacher stood up for me. She asked Nancy if Jesus were in hell, since he was a Jew. Nancy couldn’t say yes to this and begrudgingly apologized. But rumors spread. I, a Germanic gentile girl who had never seen a synagogue, became Vestavia Elementary’s target for anti-Semitism! I had no friends during my two remaining years in elementary school, and I dreaded the taunts that met me each day at school.

For academic reasons, my parents took me out of the public school system and sent me to seventh and eighth grades at Holy Spirit Catholic School. They told me not to be afraid of the religiousness I would see at school. They told me that I could have different beliefs from those of the Catholics but still be respectful of them. My first few days were terrifying. Teachers called on me to read bible verses that I did not know how to look up, and I had to read the Lord’s Prayer from a book because I had never heard it before. I mispronounced the “o” in “Job.” But I learned what every Catholic kid should know about Church history, and eventually I was even soothed by a good mass. No one seemed to mind that I was not Catholic or even Christian. Southern Catholics know persecution. There are no uniforms at Holy Spirit because of Klan violence against Catholics in the 1960s. A plaid jumper might invite a gunshot. Maybe this history is why the Catholics were so tolerant of my differences.

In ninth grade I returned to Alabama’s glorious public education system and, subsequently, intolerance and proselytizing. I had planned to take the school by storm, but my first day back did not bode well for this agenda. Schools in Alabama start in early August, when the subtropical Deep South is markedly inclement. Every morning the members of the prayer club entered the school to start their meeting as soon as they got off the bus. They would pray for a half hour or so, while the rest of us were not allowed into the building. We sinners stood around sweating, in conditions that reflected what would commence after our deaths.

The first day of ninth grade, all teachers started class by barking out their disciplinary codes. They all introduced themselves with brief biographies including their “church homes.” My history teacher asked all the Baptist kids to raise their hands and to keep them raised while she wrote down their names. The year after I left my junior high school, a student in my history teacher’s class asked a question when they were studying the Holocaust: If you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven and Jews don’t believe in Jesus, are they going to hell? The teacher’s matter-of-fact response, “Well, yeah, all Jews will burn in hell,” triggered a letter-writing campaign by parents, including mine, to ask the school board to take action against the teacher. Instead, she was promoted to the high school.

Reports of that year baffle my friends here in Minnesota. I knew that walking down the hall meant hearing other students mutter, “Jew” or “Commie,” as they passed me. But I did have three girlfriends with whom I did normal teeny-bopper things. We watched movies, talked about boys, and went shopping together. Because two were Methodists and one was a Southern Baptist, I felt detached from the religious side of their lives—a side that was increasingly relevant to our relationship. A few times I went to church with them after sleepovers, and I was always uncomfortable listening to their slick-haired preachers talk about salvation.

Every Halloween, a holiday of which fundamentalists are not fond, a local Baptist church holds a Judgment House, in which congregants act out scenes from heaven and hell in various rooms of their mega-church. I agreed to go with my friends that year, because I thought I was really tough. I thought the Judgment House would make a funny story when I got out of the South. But it was not funny to see my community show me what they think I deserve. Nor was it funny when, at the last stop of the tour of hell, a man asked all those who do not attend church to come to the front of the room. It was not funny when my friends stared at me until I did so.

When I got to the front, a woman led me into a side room. She told me to sit down, and she asked me personal questions that embarrassed me. She asked me if my parents believed in God and why I did not go to church. Then she told me to repeat after her what developed into a creed that professed my belief in Jesus and my guilt for my hitherto sinful life. Dumbstruck, I left the room and found my friends. I tried to tell them what had happened, and they cried with joy because I had “found Jesus.” Strangely enough, I felt much more “saved” by my later northern migration than I did by this spiritual awakening.

The repetition of the Baptist woman’s words did not, indeed, convince me to attend church. Kate, the surprised alpha member of our clique, gave me an ultimatum one day in the locker room while we changed our clothes after gym class. If I didn’t get baptized and start attending church every week, she and the other two would have nothing to do with me. As melodramatic as it sounds, that marked the end of my friendships in Alabama.

The next year I started Tuscaloosa County High School, where my favorite classes were taught in the Lurleen Wallace Social Science Wing of the building. My education was taking place in a location named after a woman who, as the first female governor of Alabama, had served as a surrogate for her husband, George Wallace, whose entire political career was a crusade for racism. Seeing that sign next to my history classroom on the first day of school and walking past a prayer group inside the school the next morning gave me a sense of foreboding about my high school experience. This feeling proved accurate. Religion was just as interwoven in my high school as it had been in my junior high.

Instead of my classmates’ growing accustomed to my disinterest in religion, more and more of them saw me as a raging atheist. One day my tenth-grade English class spent the period in the library. As there were no empty tables, I sat down next to a popular kid named Josh, whom I had never met. After a few quiet minutes, Josh announced loudly, “So, Anne, I hear you don’t go to church.” I told him that no, I did not go to church. He asked me if Jesus were the son of God. I said, “No, probably not.” Everyone in the small library–my classmates, students from another class, and the librarians—watched him stand up and scream at me about his disgust and my impending damnation. He told me that I was a sick person. Instead of going to my next class, I found my English teacher and told her what had happened. She told me I should try church. I went to my next class for a few minutes. There, in a magnificent display of irony, Kate, who had sworn me off months earlier, explained to me that not all Christians are like Josh. She said I should give Jesus a chance. I checked myself out of school.

My junior year, another teacher, a fundamentalist Wesleyan, fell in love with the idea of saving me, just as Candace had in fourth grade. He liked me as much as a person can like someone he believes deserves damnation. He invited me to church with him (to no avail) and ranted about the merits of C.S. Lewis. One day after class he told me that he wanted me to stay late because he had invited someone to talk to me. It was another teacher, who led all of the school’s Christian groups, from the morning prayer group to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I was scared.

After all the students were gone, this teacher walked in and closed the door, pulled a chair close to me, sat in it backwards, and looked at me hard.

“You don’t go to church?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

I always slipped into servile “sirs” and “ma’ams” when I got scared in Alabama.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like what I’ve seen organized religion do to people.”

The interrogation continued, covering my parents’ religiosity and my lack of friends. I gave him ambiguous answers and seemed comfortable with a lifestyle that struck him as absurd and wrong. Then he dropped the bomb.
“Anne, do you believe in a personal God?”

I stared back at him for a moment, then looked at my teacher at his desk. With a nervous smile, I said, “I don’t know.”

The teacher stood up, pushed his chair across the floor, and stared at me.

“I can’t talk to you,” he said before slamming the door.

Somehow, that announcement summed up my problem in Alabama. No one could understand me, and no one tried. I bothered everyone because I was a good kid. I was friendly, tried hard in school, and volunteered in the community. Yet, according to their preachers, I was the scum of the earth. Teachers and students wanted me to go to church to make themselves more comfortable with their religion. I didn’t have the outward signs of a heathen, but I was doomed. Ultimately, I think I won parts of the battle. People who knew me at home still attend church and still believe every word of the sermons. But at least I made a few of them think. I provided a face for the group that they hate. I hope I made it a little harder for some people to dismiss non-Christians as bad people.

The scene is dismal for people like me in Alabama. It is never easy to dissent from a community’s de facto consensus. Because I am not a Christian, it is hard for me to think about home. It hurts to know that my parents live there. It hurts to know that people like us are unwelcome. It makes sense that my classmates felt uncomfortable with me, because I was all they had to associate with their preachers’ warnings about non-believers. Although their remarks and attitudes are not fond memories of mine, the larger issue is that teachers encouraged their intolerance. What is wrong in my tale is that institutional forces made me feel inferior. Americans paid money to hire public school teachers who told me to go to church and who acted disgusted by my religious decisions. Public money funded prayer groups that left me in the literal and metaphorical heat. When religion pervades a public school system, students learn to value homogeneity. My school system teaches children to hate those who are different. It always struck me that God is everywhere, yet nowhere, in Alabama.

Freedom From Religion Foundation