Just saw a letter to one of my favorite advice columnists, Dear Prudence, at Slate Magazine, from a family who moved from a liberal Northeastern enclave to a small Southern town and found themselves in hot water with their neighbors when they protested their daughter's elementary school teacher's practice of leading the class in a lengthy prayer before lunch every day. Now, contrary to what a lot of people think, the Supreme Court has never outlawed prayer in public schools (ask any student about to take an AP Calculus exam); it's sectarian prayers ("in Jesus' name," for example, or "there is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet") that has been found unconstitutional. I imagine that's what this teacher was doing, because when the parents protested, the prayers stopped. And now they're getting the cold shoulder. Prudence sympathized with how "distressing" it must be to live in a place where there is so little religious tolerance.
And I say, it's not distressing; it's the authentic, gen-u-wine Southern experience this family has encountered. You have not lived in the South until you have been told you are going to hell. I grew up being told I was going to hell every Sunday, and this was usually accompanied by a fairly vivid description of what hell looked like: a lake of fire, as I recall, and no lifeguard in sight. The Deep South is--or used to be until very recently, and still is in a lot of places--a region of great religious uniformity: evangelical Christian, from the Blue Ridge down to the Gulf Coast. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this which I won't bore anybody with, but as the letter-writer to Dear Prudence is discovering, being an outlier of any kind in that environment is a fascinating cultural experience. (I knew a Jewish woman once who was told by her playmates in south Georgia that John the Baptist was, in fact, the First Baptist. Needless to say, she was told she was going to hell, too.) For a couple hundred years now, evangelical Christianity has informed every aspect of Southern life, from its politics to its architecture. I was in college at Emory before I realized that the folks who invented the Ionic column were the ancient Greeks and not the folks who built all those Baptist churches. Southerners take their religion seriously: as I write, Georgia has just passed a law that allows people to carry their guns into church, among other places. My Southern friends on Facebook have been talking about this, and when one person asked why on earth anybody would want to carry a gun to church, I proposed that it was in case there might be some doctrinal dispute over, say, First Ephesians--whereupon I was immediately corrected by another Southern friend that there is only ONE Ephesians in the Bible, whereupon that person was immediately corrected by my brother-in-law, who wrote that there was only one Ephesians ever since the great Hahira Baptist shootout of 1859, when Second Ephesians when down with its defenders in a blaze of gunfire.
So my advice to the family from the liberal northeastern enclave would be: chill out. For a Southerner, sending other people to hell, or being advised to go there himself, is just another day in the life. Besides, you're going to get a much more interesting level of conversation in hell than you'd get in heaven, since most of the folks there will be Southerners. See you there!