Dub the Baptist and That Old Time Religion
If you ever go to a white working class bar in a red state, the juke box will be playing and the music coming out will be country and western. Different cultures in our big melting pot tend to promote their own music, and rural culture is no exception. And of course, music can tell us a great deal about the people who sing it.
I got to thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I went on a short vacation to a resort hotel that happened to be in red country. I was sitting in an outdoor lounge set up next to a playground so the parents could sit and have a drink while the children entertained themselves under their watchful eyes.
The lounge had a pretty good country and western band and I was enjoying it, having been brought up by my eclectic mother on Patsy Kline and Hank Williams. Suddenly, the single folks sitting at the bar erupted into loud cheers that drowned out the music for a minute. When the cheering stopped, I realized with a start that the band had launched into the classic “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” by Jimmy Buffett. A good enough song, although perhaps not altogether appropriate for my kids swinging on the jungle gym. But the kids didn’t seem to notice, so I held my powder and went back to my drink. The song took me back, however, and I found myself ruminating on Southern religious culture and the life of an old acquaintance of mine whom I shall call Dub the Baptist, born and raised in West Virginia.
The Dub is for W.D., the imaginary first two initials of his entirely fictitious name (for he may still be alive for all I know). Dub was the first Southerner I ever got to know really well. I would by no means cal him a typical Southerner (as you shall see) but his strange tale did help me develop a sort of understanding of how “conservative” moral culture works. And I found out that it is more human than many people on the Left think.
When I was younger, I used to work for Dub helping him to deliver groceries on Saturdays. This was a job that Dub did part time to raise cash for his Saturday night carousing. Now Dub, who you should picture as he was, clean cut and Southern charming and built like a bear, didn’t need to work the Saturday job, because he was doing just fine in his regular job. He sort of used the Saturday job to gauge how much steam he would let himself blow off on Saturday night, since he had an iron clad rule that he would only use his Saturday cash for his Saturday night revels. Whatever he made, though, he spent on liquor, women, and god knows what, because whenever we had a particularly good day at work, he’d blow out so many brain cells that night that the best he could tell me the following week was that he woke up at dawn Sunday half naked in the park with his legs wrapped around a tree trunk and a pair of some strange woman’s unmentionables over his head.
Dub was a good old Southern Baptist from a good old Southern Baptist family. For all of you who think that Southern Baptists are nothing but a bunch of lying hypocrites with their “Marriage Protection Acts” juxtaposed against the highest divorce rates in the country, let me explain a thing or two. While they are strongly against fornication, heavy drinking, violence, divorce, and all the other things they celebrate in country and western music, it doesn’t follow that they don’t think that these things are not absolutely bound to happen. Baptists are the lineal descendents of rock ribbed Calvinists and Calvinists and their heirs see two sides to human existence. On one hand it’s true that you have to stand tall and fly right or there is going to be a righteous butt whippin’ come Judgement Day. But on the other hand, humans are naturally weak (and I mean weak, suh!). Their first, second, third and last natural impulse is to get up to no good. There is nothing whatsoever they can do about this alone, so they believe they need the personal help of Great God Almighty himself if they are going to get anywhere at all.
This explains what Liberals see as the extremely high tolerance for hypocrisy when it comes to themselves. Many Liberals seem to say that if the standards are impossible to achieve by humans, then there’s a problem with the standards. They will also say that if a particular person promotes the standards in a hard line way and they are then caught in the barn during an illicit rendezvous with Flossie the Sheep (I’m thinking of a recent luscious Republican scandal here), that kind of person is a cynic with no standards at all. The Conservative response is that people are so naturally wicked that without the standards we would have nothing at all. What a Liberal sees as a Conservative attack on sin itself is, to a Conservative actually a defense of the standards, since not sinning is not an option. And it is things like seeing a born again elected public official messing up, that tells them that we have to define those standards all the harder.
Now Dub did not party with sheep. But he did party like a ram. Most Southern Baptists are like everyone else. Some folks more or less toe the line their entire lives from cradle to crypt as though it simply comes natural to them (and don’t they like to remind us of it). Most folks thrash around a bit when they are younger, and this might include a failed marriage or two, all to be chalked up to experience and the power of good intentions, after which they more or less settle down and grow up.
But a few folks climb right up onto the Devil’s Diving Board and they do a perfect swan dive into the brimming Olympic sized cesspool of sin without nary a ripple while those around them watch in wondrous astonishment and trepidation while they wait to see if the diver is ever going to break the surface again.
Dub himself seemed to start in the natural born Christian category, until his first semester at a frat house at the University of West Virginia. His parents got their first inkling that their son might be destined for a diving medal when they decided to drive up to see him at school one Sunday morning, unannounced.
The campus was much bigger than they had expected and after driving around for about an hour, Dub’s father pulled up in front of what he thought was Dub’s frat house. A young man was lying on a chaise lounge in the grass by the road, reading a book.
“Excuse me, son” said Dub’s father. “But does W.D Turner live here?”
“Yes sir, he sure does!” replied the young man. “Just leave him in the front yard and we’ll take care of him.”
Dub had gone wild on them. And he’d only been there three weeks.
Now Dub was neither stupid nor was he untalented. He managed to make it onto the varsity football team, which at a school like West Virginia seemed to bring out the forgiving natures of the people around him. He also did well in his studies. Not spectacularly, but compared to his gridiron peers he stood out like a sparkler on an old man’s birthday cake.
As Dub pursued his extracurricular activities, he still managed to make his first downs, so his parents were not unduly worried about the young man’s soul. Even his coach, who once lost his temper after getting Dub out of the town lockup one too many times, and who had given him a Cotton Bowl sized chewing out that ended with “Son, what you need to do is to grab yourself by the scruff of your neck and pull your head out of your *** before it’s too late” didn’t really think it was too late by any means. In time, Dub developed a good working ability at public hypocrisy just like any other normal American college student, and this took some of the pressure off.
Dub was naturally gregarious, so when he graduated, what better job was there for his natural abilities and interests than to become a traveling salesman? He turned out to be rather good at it (which was taken by those who loved him as another sign that he wasn’t necessarily destined for damnation). It was as a traveling salesman that he began to have the amazing adventures that he liked to encapsulate in pithy bromides. He would relate these pearls of wisdom to me in a game that we invented whose purpose was to distract us from the 60 pound boxes of groceries that we often had to hump up three flights of stairs. The game involved mocking Sheriff Andy Taylor of the Andy Griffith Show. In the sixties, Sheriff Taylor was the great national popular icon of wise Southern manhood, so of course, we both hated him. As we would approach the fourth landing and the boxes were at their groaning heaviest and the blood was beginning to seep out from under our fingernails, I would start the game by saying in my best Opie (the Sheriff’s son) voice:
“Paw, I just don’t know what to do.”
It was Dub’s job to draw the longest, most thoughtful Sheriff Taylor fat he could under the circumstances and give me a gem of his fatherly Southern wisdom.
Some of the nuggets were generic, like these:
“Son, a dawg’s just a dumb animal.”
“Son, sometimes a man’s just got to be a man.”
But sometimes the gems were the fruit of bitter personal experience:
“Son, a man’s home is his castle. And you should never mess around in another man’s castle.”
“Son, if you’re ever out with a buddy and you pick up a couple of women and you find yourself on some bunk beds, make sure you get the bottom bunk.”
“Son, if you ever meet a strange woman and go home with her, whatever else you take off, be sure to leave your shoes on, because you never know when you might have to leave in a hurry.”
(Dub had formulated this last one while jumping over a set of backyard hedges, barefoot and buck naked, while an outraged husband took shots at him with a .22.)
It is fair to say that Dub led a rather active social life for a Baptist. You might wonder if people considered him a good Christian. Perhaps not by some, but to the good Christians around him (and not just the ones who loved him) Dub was still not considered to have gone all the way over the hill. Like many Christians he would sometimes pause for a long introspective assessment on the state of his soul. This would often be coupled with sincere resolutions of radical reform. It is true that these resolutions did not last much longer than the hangover. But man is weak and his prayers are not the less sincere for that.
Now we’ve come to the point in the story where under normal conventions I would insert the fiery Baptist minister who spars with Dub over the years and who finally saves his soul. Unfortunately, contrary to what you might expect from watching the big televangelists, the Southern Baptists don’t really work that way. You can sort of look at a Baptist minister as a colonel who stands up before the troops once or twice a week to give them the outline (once again) of the general mission and to remind them of what’s at stake.
The actual work of front line evangelization is done by the rank and file faithful. These people are everywhere, and in terms of my own particular personal experience, the Church of Dub the Baptist wasn’t located on the village square, but in an old diner across the street from the grocery store where we worked.
Dub was a great believer in the Power of a Good Breakfast, both for us and for the 1964 Rambler station wagon we used for deliveries. Since the old car was temperamental, Dub would give it a pep talk as we drove down to the gas station.
“Old buddy, most people would pump you with some low octane Shell or something. But not me, old son. Nope, I like you so much; I’m going to get you some Purple Martin Ethyl, so I can hear you ROAR!”
After we fed the car, we’d head to the diner. I don’t remember the name of it any more, but I do remember the place itself. It was staffed entirely by Southern Baptists, all of whom were middle aged professional short order cooks and waitresses with massive hair. They were dressed in crisp white uniforms like old fashioned surgeons and the place was completely stainless steel and spotless. Most of the staff had nicknames and a feature of the place was that each staff person was allowed to create a “special” featuring their favorite things for breakfast and these were posted on large signs under their names. If you ordered one, you got a five percent discount.
The man who said “you are what you eat” was certainly right, because the menus seemed to really reflect the person. The Preacher Special (Preacher was the head cook) was a good Christian breakfast:
Short Stack of Buttermilk Pancakes
Four Scramble Eggs
Four Rashers of Bacon
Two Slices of Buttered Wheat Toast
Large Orange Juice
The Buck Special, on the other hand, was:
Six Links Country Sausage
Two Slices Country Ham
Six Rashers of Bacon
Two Hamburger Patties
One Strip Steak
(Buck was working out at the time hoping to get a shot at the Mister Tennessee title.)
The Lorene Special was:
One Quart Pepsi
Two Pieces Dry White Toast
(For Lorene, breakfast was usually the capstone of a successful evening.)
Of the staff, Buck and of course Preacher were born again. In the Southern Baptist world, one often seeks to become born again when one’s first shot at life doesn’t go as satisfactorily as expected. Preacher was a tall thin man who was missing his front four teeth and whose face had more dents and divots than a drunk’s car bumper. Preacher had the face of a man who in a past life had been caught messing around in a lot of other men’s castles.
But he was different now. He was prone to yell “PRAISE the Lord!” and “HALLeluiah!” a lot, not so much out of religious enthusiasm but because he was substituting these words for the cuss words he used to use constantly in the old days, back when his temper was so bad that he was known to drink straight down a pint of bourbon then go outside and cut his car into pieces with an axe.
When Preacher brought the breakfast plates up (for we always sat at the counter), Dub would grin and exclaim “Yeah!” and he’d clap his hands together once, then rub them real hard together a few times before digging in. Preacher would then casually ask him how last Saturday night had gone and I’d watch the regulars stop talking and sort of lean in to listen. Between bites and sips of coffee, Dub would give him the run down.
“Well, that is something.” Preacher would say. “Say, Dub, when are you going to get right with the Lord?”
“Any day, now, Preach, any day now. Say, Preach, would you get me another spoon. This one was dirty.”
“Sure Dub. PRAISE the Lord, I dropped the clean one. Wait, I’ll get you another.”
Preacher’s approach was very low key and non-judgemental. But who was he to cast stones? Dub grew up with these people and while I found Preacher a bit annoying, Dub didn’t seem to mind at all. And besides, the food was good. But I don’t think it was Preacher’s intention to make Dub feel guilty. Preacher felt he had moved into the light and that Dub was still wandering in the darkness. But Dub liked the darkness. He thought it was cool.
Eventually I got too old for the delivery job and I moved on. My relationship with Dub went the way that such things do. I kept in touch and then this petered out then I would either run into him or hear about him once in a while. At one point, he decided to straighten up and fly right and get married and when he talked about it, the marriage was going to be the keystone of his personal reform. I was happy for him (he was in his mid thirties now) but somehow I suspected that Dub was not going to prove to be a nose to the grindstone kind of guy. I saw him once or twice after that and when I gave him the standard question of “How are things going?” he gave me the standard reply “Great!”
Then I moved to another state and lost touch altogether. Until one sleepless jet lagged night when I happened to be in town and I was idly flipping through the local cable channels. And suddenly, there was Dub, older and far more respectable than I had ever seen him, on a talk show as the spokesman of some angry divorced father’s rights group. Bitter though he was, he still had the Dub twinkle in his eye. I had a feeling that things were back to the way they used to be, albeit in a bit more modest way. As far as he was concerned, he always still had some time. Death bed conversions aren’t a cliché for nothing and very frequently it is age rather than willpower that makes us stop climbing the Devil’s Diving Board in the end. Life is really just a series of attempts by us to make things better, whether we use religion to do it or not. And that’s me talking, not Sheriff Taylor.
The Religion Right is riding high in this country right now and this seems to be deforming its original character. But we should remember that the culture that produced “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” also produced “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw”. They are two sides to the same coin, and as Dub would have said, “Son, you can’t have a one sided coin.” Bill Clinton probably has it right when he says that the Religious Right simply consists of a bunch of people who want to tell the rest of us what to do. We don’t have to dig down into the wells of religion itself it see what’s wrong about that. Old time religion is simply based on the desire to figure out how to live and to figure out how to get some help being good. Some people look especially fanatical to the rest of us, because they seem to need the reassurance of a Personal Savior and a list of black and white rules. These people may especially weak. Or it may be that the weight of life is especially heavy when you’re down at the bottom. But the desire to defend standards that one cannot readily adhere to is not in itself a bad thing if one is simply trying to defend them for oneself. When we argue with them, we shouldn’t assume they are stupid or backwards and treat them that way. They are trying to make sure somehow that the standards themselves are not swept away. And that’s a good thing.