Not everybody drives a truck. Not everybody drinks sweet tea. Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap, boots and jeans. Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race. — "Southern Comfort Zone," song by Brad Paisley
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I'm not sure what to make of a just-published Associated Press story making the case that the once-dominant influence of churches in the South is waning.
On the one hand: Duh.
On the other hand: I'm not certain that the small town of Sylacauga, Ala., allowing Ruby Tuesday's or O'Charley's to sell beer on Sunday afternoon is a sign of the End Times — or the best example of churches losing their dominance.
The top of the AP story:
SYLACAUGA, Ala. (AP) -- Prayers said and the closing hymn sung, tea-drinking churchgoers fill Marble City Grill for Sunday lunch. But hard on their heels comes the afternoon crowd: craft beer-drinking, NFL-watching football fans.
Such a scene would have been impossible just months ago because Sunday alcohol sales were long illegal in Sylacauga, hometown of both the actor who played TV's Gomer Pyle and the white marble used to construct the U.S. Supreme Court building. While the central Alabama city of 12,700 has only one hospital, four public schools and 21 red lights, the chamber of commerce directory lists 78 churches.
Yet few were surprised when residents voted overwhelmingly in September to legalize Sunday alcohol sales. Churches lacked either the heart or influence to stop it.
That shift is part of a broad pattern across the South: Churches are losing their grip on a region where they could long set community standards with a pulpit-pounding sermon or, more subtly, a sideward glance toward someone walking into a liquor store.
Unless I missed it, the AP doesn't actually interview any of the Sunday lunch tea drinkers. I'd be curious to know: Do they drink tea (sweet tea, I'm assuming) at Sunday lunch because they don't believe in drinking craft beer? Or are they planning to imbibe at dinner?
The AP lede makes a lot of assumptions, including the notion that church people don't drink. For the record, I am a church person, and I don't drink. But I hear about (and from) more and more regular churchgoers, including ministers, whose position on social drinking has changed. Does that mean the church has lost its grip? Or that church people have changed their perspective?
As I've shared before, there's an old joke that Jews don't recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don't recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian faith, and Baptists don't recognize each other at the liquor store. Maybe these days, Baptists (and a few Church of Christ folks) are more willing to acknowledge buying a bottle of wine? Does that mean churches have lost their grip? Wouldn't such subtleties be relevant to the AP's simplistic storyline?
More broad, sweeping statements from the story:
In metro Atlanta, youth sports teams regularly practice and play games on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights — times that were strictly off-limits a generation ago because they conflicted with church worship services. In Mississippi, dozens of businesses display anti-discrimination stickers distributed by a gay rights group rather than worry about a church-based backlash.
I've written about the clash of youth sports with Sunday worship, and it's certainly not a trend limited to metro Atlanta. As for Wednesday nights, I was visiting with a church nonprofit leader just the other day, and that person lamented that many churches no longer offer midweek services. But is the only analysis that the church is losing its grip? Or could the reasons relate to people working longer hours, living farther from their worship places (think commuter churches) and church leaders recognizing the need for more balance in assembly times? No doubt the AP identifies some symptoms, but I'm just not certain the wire service — in its generalizations — accurately pinpoints the diagnosis.
As for the statement about anti-discrimination, why would there be a backlash? Do churches oppose anti-discrimination at businesses? Or do they support religious freedom and the ability — free of government restriction — to preach and teach their understanding of the Bible's teachings on marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman?
The end of the AP piece hints — in a broad way — that the real story may be deeper and more complex than the easy "church influence waning" narrative:
Fuller, the religion professor, said the loss of influence isn't all bad for Southern churches. The idea of churches controlling Southern society is giving way to individuals searching for a deeper faith, he said.
"The fact that you didn't drink, cuss or chew or go with girls who do, didn't dance, didn't do this or that, was far more a litmus test of one's faith and devotion to Christ in a previous day and in many instances in a way that, I think, produced a superficial sort of religion in many respects," he said. "I think there has been some growth and development in outlook."
Southern stereotypes are great for country songs, and I love them.
However, journalism requires a little more digging and nuance. The AP served up some nice gravy. But it forgot the fried chicken.
Image of Sylacauga, Ala., via Wikimedia Commons