Tattoos. Unwed pregnancy. Giving up on shaving…showering…and employment. These used to be signatures of a trashy individual. Now they’re the new norm. What happened to etiquette, hygiene, and self restraint? Charlotte Hays, Southern gentlewoman extraordinaire, takes a humorous look at the spread of white trash culture to all levels of American society.
As White Trash values have traveled upwards in society, it is not surprising that the tide has engulfed the churches. It used to be that being a Pentecostal or a snake handler in Appalachia made you White Trash. But that’s so yesterday. Anyway, you’ve got to hand it to the snake fellows—they weren’t half as ignorant as our nouveau White Trash.
Indeed, I’d bet on the serpent handler any day of the week over my friend—let’s call her Jane, and let’s just say you’d probably be impressed with her educational credentials—if they could both get on Jeopardy! When was the last time somebody had to say to a snake handler, “Bubba, honey, Jesus weren’t crucified on Ash Wednesday.” Jane resisted at first, but with my silver tongue I finally managed to swing her over to the Good Friday position. She’s an Episcopalian.
You do not need an Ivy League degree to be White Trash in your religious orientation these days, but there is no denying that it helps. I am thinking of another friend, a magazine writer who initially thought that Epiphany Church in Georgetown was named after a boutique. He thought this was cool. Then I ruined it by telling him about the Magi.
Walker Percy wrote about being lost in the cosmos, but now we are lost in White Trash America. If—God forbid—you ever fall into a conversation about religion with a stranger, you can just about count the seconds before the dread cliché is dropped: “I don’t have anything to do with organized religion.”
This is White Trash religion in a nutshell: proud, ignorant, and messy. Just like in Appalachia—only now it’s everywhere! The bon mot about “organized” religion, by the way, is inevitably delivered with an air of superiority. But you know what? Hit’s pure White Trash.
A neighbor of mine is a scruffy man with a goatee dyed blue to match his tattoos (yes, I keep noticing them). A dabbler in Buddhism and other Eastern spiritualities—who also belongs to a gay-friendly Episcopal church near Dupont Circle—he has no inkling that it isn’t the height of originality when he says, “I just don’t like organized religion.” Apparently, a really disorganized ashram is just the ticket. He adds without a soupçon of self-knowledge, “I hope I am not overintellectualizing this.” I set his mind at rest.
Despite the pretensions of its practitioners, all this yoga and ersatz Buddhist spirituality is nothing more than an updated version of some Snopes floozy in a Faulkner novel too lazy to get out of her dirty bed in her awful cabin to get dressed and go to church on Sunday morning, while the respectable Sartoris grandmother has made sure her grandchildren are scrubbed and dressed to within an inch of their lives and marched them into the pew to insure that they’ll end up public-spirited contributing members of the community. We’ll get to the God aspect of religion later.
Whatever churchgoers believed pre–White Trash Normal—and God knows, my sister and I have wondered many times what on earth our mother, no scholar, taught her Sunday school classes—nice people got up, got dressed, and sat in a pew every Sunday or, if Jewish, on Saturday. (Mosque wasn’t much of an option in Mississippi in those days.) Having a religious affiliation was part of what made nice people nice.
A by-product of this was at least a glancing familiarity with ideas and concepts that had built Western civilization. Charlemagne? Got him. You could absorb a lot about history and art just by going to church when I was growing up. On Sunday nights, I frequented St. James Episcopal Church in Greenville, Mississippi, for Evensong and hot teen gossip, not necessarily in that order. It was when St. James sent us out one evening, two by two, to help complete a religious survey of the town that I encountered for the first time a man who didn’t belong to a church.
We kept trying to reframe the question so he’d spill the beans and let us get back to St. James and scarf down hamburgers.
In addition to being hell-bound, the poor guy was clearly starved for attention. We may not have been much of an audience, two small-town teenagers, but Godless was thrilled by our incomprehension at his Voltaire-of-the-subdivision act. When the truth finally sank in, I was shocked—but not for the reasons he probably—proudly—assumed. I was already perfectly aware that there were people in the world who didn’t believe in God. After all, we had tons of books at home written by atheists, agnostics, and high Anglican priests with Doubts. Indeed, my own brother-in-law professed to be a non-believer. (Fortunately, he had gone to Sunday school as a child, so we were able to pass him off as Presbyterian; Mama would have died otherwise.)
But not belonging to a church—well, I never!
What bothered me was not the fate of the man’s soul but the sheer tawdriness of not having a religious affiliation, even a casual one. Where would his poor kids learn to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” or acquire basic (very basic, if you happened to be an Episcopalian) knowledge of the Bible? You may not eat Squirt Cheese on saltines, but if you don’t know at least the first verse of “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” you may be White Trash. Ironically, it’s the old line WASPs, a people whose very identify is tied to their religious heritage, who have let the team down most. The dear old things may have been a tad dull at times, but they dutifully got their children to Sunday school every Sunday morning before the big Sunday lunch of overcooked roast beef and creamed peas in pastry shells. I’m sure I’m not the only WASP manqué (I later moved on to an even more organized church) who has enough Crown and Cross decorations (you got a pin, a wreath, and then a bar for every year of perfect attendance) to cross-dress as a Latin American dictator.
But nowadays the churches once frequented by such people are offering yoga classes or “Eat, Pray, Love” study groups in place of Isaac Watts’s old hymns. And it is not working. Average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent for Episcopalians in the last decade, and the Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have seen similar declines. Ross Douthat wrote a book entitled “Bad Religion,” which, undoubtedly unbeknownst to Mr. Douthat, is a guide to White Trash religion. “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it,” Douthat wrote. “It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities in its wake.” Often one finds pseudo-Christianity in high places. When the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., steps into the pulpit of the National Cathedral, the premiere church of the Episcopal Church, and reads a poem by New Age poet David Whyte, that’s literally Whyte Trash in a once-great house of worship. “It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods,” Whyte once wrote. “I want to know if you belong—or feel abandoned.” Yuck.
You thought the Rapture crowd would believe anything? Wrong. Neo–White Trash religion takes gullibility to a new height. White Trash religion embraces not only pseudo-Christianities but pseudo-scholarship with a simple faith that is almost touching. One of the White Trash notions afoot—and it’s among the general populace, not just White Trash academics—is that the early history of the Church is just a one long series of power struggles between men and the women they sought to oppress and impose their odious patriarchal views on. Unfortunately for this point of view, the early Christians were often poor and too busy getting themselves martyred to do much in the way of oppressing women or building up earthly power. St. John the Divine was the only Apostle to reach old age and die in his bed. If there was a power struggle going on, it was with the pagan authorities, not ditzy broads who wanted to dance the Eucharist. The older WASP had some appreciation of this history, but his grandchildren—likely named Apple, Bodhi, and Thor—don’t. They were not fortified against such foolishness by the simple expedient of being sent to Sunday school every Sunday. Not sending your children to Sunday school is worse for posterity than having a dead tractor in the front yard.
Some of the new White Trash religions people concoct are parody-worthy but at the same time not a laughing matter. Goddess worship is all the rage, and its devotees fondly believe they are following something quite ancient. But they are deluded. For one thing, they got their goddess all wrong. The girls on the popular ’90s TV show Friends called on the goddess for help getting dates. Feminist goddess worshippers go howl at the moon, or some such foolishness, to invoke her.
They should count their lucky stars the goddess doesn’t appear. Most of the goddesses in the ancient world made Yahweh at his plague-wielding worst look like a pushover. My own personal favorite is Cybele, who insisted that her male worshippers become do-it-yourself John Wayne Bobbitts. I’m told that Cybele has a certain following in transgender circles, and that it is believed that Christianity suppressed her cult because of its “fear” of LGBTQ people. So we should all relax! Why worry if young men are turning themselves into eunuchs for no good reason?
No doubt there are many serious scholars of Buddhism in the West. I am willing to go out on a limb and bet that my neighbor with the blue goatee isn’t one of them, however. When my sister was bringing up her sons, she offered bribes if they’d serve as acolytes. The theory was that even if they were little heathens they might get religion later. And if and when they did, she had made sure they would have something solid to fall back on—instead of joining an embarrassing ashram or running off with a maharishi. Nor did she want her daughter to grow up to welcome the solstice in a hot tub. (What she didn’t fully anticipate was that the rector of her granddaughter’s local Episcopal church would be a divorced lesbian.)
Some other facets of White Trash Normal are just annoying. The elite U.S. press doesn’t have the foggiest when it comes to the forms of religion. Whenever there is a ceremony in Westminster Abbey, they get all the clergy titles wrong.
Note to White Trash press covering the next royal event in the Abbey: the Archbishop of Canterbury is not called “Reverend Welby.” It’s not surprising that they don’t know the niceties, but it is surprising that they don’t know they don’t know—and therefore never think to ask somebody.
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote a book on the Infancy narratives suggesting the calendar may have Christ’s birth a year or two off—hardly a matter of doctrine—the press went wild and had the pope “disputing” the gospel.
Not having a nodding acquaintance with religion, they can’t distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t matter.
Camille Paglia, an atheist art historian who nevertheless has a high appreciation for the beauty engendered by Christianity, has taught students who can’t quite place Adam and Eve and haven’t the foggiest who that Moses fellow was. “If you are an artist and you don’t recognize the name of Moses,” Paglia told Emily Esfahani Smith, “then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide.”
What these kids needed growing up was a good, oldfashioned Baptist Sword Drill to set them straight. “Sword drills,” as my Baptist organist friend puts it, “were something like a spelling bee, but using the Bible—the Sword of the Spirit.” The moderator called out something from the Scripture, and the first one to locate it in the Bible stepped forward and read it aloud.” It was considered fatal to invite an Episcopalian to church on Sword Drill night because they’d lose for your team. One of my friends was there the night Hebrews was tossed out. She frantically scoured the Old Testament until her Baptist hostess took pity and said, “Meredith, there are lots of Hebrews in the Old Testament, but the letter to them is in the New Testament.” My sister claims to have cost many a Baptist unwise enough to ask her to church on Sunday nights many a victory in the Sword Drill. But my sister can still recite the Catechism by rote and identify the heraldic shields of all the Apostles, which were prominently displayed in our parish hall. Okay, learning the coats of arms for the Apostles is very Anglican—but you take my larger point: back then we were able to paddle a bit in the stream that is our civilization. We weren’t stuck in the hollows. It is sad that so few children nowadays have the charming experience of memorizing the books of the Bible by singing “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus” in Sunday school. But then you’d be hard-pressed to find many thriving Sunday schools these days. Like many once civilizing aspects of life, Sunday school is a casualty of divorce. Instead of a morning with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the God of Israel, the modern child is more likely to spend the day visiting the “other” parent. White Trash has always been partial to immediate gratification over long-term planning. Sunday school was the ultimate in long-term planning for the next generation.
Cultural illiteracy breeds White Trash behavior. If you don’t know who Adam and Eve were, you probably don’t have reasoned arguments as to whether Adam and Steve should get married. Indeed, I’ll go out on a limb and predict a day when a clergyman divorces his wife, comes out of the closet, takes a male lover, and then becomes the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. Nah, that’s crazy. Things will never get that trashy. Sometimes I amuse myself by trying to picture my grandfather, a plain vanilla Episcopalian if ever there was one, “exchanging the peace.” No can do. But you know what I really can’t imagine? I really can’t imagine him—or any of his contemporaries—sitting in a pew at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine engaging in ritual howling. Back in the day, even Episcopalians had a grip on reality.
And, if you think some bumptious coot who dresses like Larry the Cable Guy is full of hisself, you need to get out more. Having grown up mostly without the tempering influence of what was once mainstream religion, today’s young are off the charts when it comes to self-esteem, formerly known as vanity. Several recent studies have shown that self-esteem is highest among prison inmates, neo-Nazis, and other assorted bullies. But high self-regard is on the rise among young people in general. Psychologist Jean Twenge’s famous study “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before” looked at the scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation administered to sixteen thousand American college students between the years of 1982 and 2006. The evaluation includes questions such as: “I think I am a special person.” “If I ruled the world it would be a better place.” “I find it easy to manipulate people.” Around 65 percent of the students surveyed in 2006 scored high, a rise of 30 percent from 1982. Can you imagine how scary it would be if one of these narcissists became president? Instead of being puffed up with self-esteem, maybe the young should be learning more about Original Sin.
A beautifully educated young friend of mine possesses a fine mind and is in no way White Trash—except with regard to religion (or lack thereof). He occasionally popped into a mosque when he was required to attend worship services in school, but his contact with his family’s religion is minimal.
Throwing down the gauntlet to me, he insists that the mention of dragons in Scripture shows that the Bible is nothing but myth. I can only think of how Father Mowbray, the hapless priest charged with instructing the invincibly ignorant Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, characterized his charge.
“Lady Marchmain,” said the despairing Jesuit, “he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.” That is the epitaph for our society.
When I attended the graveside funeral service for a friend’s aunt, a decade or so ago, we were asked to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm. It was moving to see all the older people, my mother and my own aunt, able to recite the psalm from memory.
How much longer will it be possible to ask a congregation to say the Twenty-third Psalm without a printed text? One mustn’t think of regular church attendance merely as a way to keep White Trash manners at bay. But it helps.
From the book When Did White Trash Become the New Normal?: A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. Reprinted by arrangement with Regnery Publishing. All rights reserved.