A nation looked on in surprise as an unheard of event was caused by an unheard of peanut farmer: the nomination of a southerner to the presidency of the United States.
I, too, looked on with surprise. I wished him well but thought the nation probably would be better off handled as it had always been….by Yankees. (Well, yes, there was Johnson but he did have a little help ascending to the presidency.)
A resourceful reporter from the Associated Press sent to write yet another story about a person everything had been written about, decided to explain the Carter religion. This religion the president adheres to, the reporter told us, is called “Southern Baptist”. Though the quotation marks weren’t there, the tone implying quotations marks was. The reporter wrote to inform the rest of the nation and probably did not realize how it would sound to us in the Bible belt.
However, reading it, I felt like I shouldn’t have, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I wasn’t intended to hear. There wasn’t anything offensive about the article; I’m sure it was technically correct. It sounded familiar, but it reminded me of an obituary you read in the paper about a person you’ve known in life. In obituaries all the facts are always there: He had grandchildren. He was a member of the Kiwanis. He attended church at. . .etc.
What obits never tell you are how he gave away the extra tomatoes from his garden, how he’d walk around the neighborhood on Halloween slipping quarters into children’s sacks, how he always wore the same hat, etc.
And these human aspects were what was lacking in this reporter’s story. Not having had the benefit I had of growing up in a small Southern Baptist Church how was the reporter to know?
How was the reporter to know about how our legs, tanned by hours of bare footing it down dusty roads, looked against our white anklets and freshly polished white Sunday shoes?
How the boys jumped on and off the church porch where the congregation huddled saying their goodbyes during a spring rain? How the preacher had to be told to tone down his fire and brimstone speeches because he was scaring the little girl with Down’s Syndrome who came to church every Sunday.
What about the lady who walked a mile to church every Sunday and refused rides even in the worst weather? Or about the alto whose voice could be heard over the entire congregation’s and how everyone sitting next to her whether they meant to or not sang alto along with her?
How at the church pot luck dinner you always asked Mrs. Miller to bring dressing even though her dressing was about the worst, but no one wanted to offend Mrs. Miller.
The reporter neglected to tell how everyone was related to just about everybody else either by blood or by marriage and how the names on the tombstones in the little cemeteries by the churches matched the names of those on the church registry.
The reporter forgot: the toys that rattled in the purses of mothers with small children; the games of tic-tac-toe and hangman’s noose played on the church quarterlies by the school age children ; the teenagers grouped in pairs on the back row; the babies crying; the old men snoring.
How could that reporter have summed all of that up in a who, what, when, where and why story about these people called “Southern Baptists.” That reporter couldn’t. So he didn’t even try.