Southern Christendom, as it was in the 1980s, is now, and evermore might be


Walker Percy knew how to capture the South, as well as American culture, within his characters and stories. In this passage near the end of his 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy’s narrator observes Southern-fried American Christianity through his wife and his region. I dare say his observations seem fresh today:

Later Ellen experienced a religious conversion. She became disaffected when the Southern and Northern Presbyterians, estranged since the Civil War, reunited after over a hundred years. It was not the reunion she objected to but the liberal theology of the Northern Presbyterians, who, according to her, were more interested in African revolutionaries than the divinity of Christ. She and others pulled out and formed the Independent Northlake Presbyterian Church.

Then she became Episcopalian.

Then suddenly she joined a Pentecostal sect. She tells me straight out that she has had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, that where once she was lost and confused, seduced by Satan and the false pleasures of this world, she has now found true happiness with her Lord and Saviour. She has also been baptized in the Holy Spirit. She speaks in tongues.

I do not know what to make of this. I do not know that she has not found Jesus Christ and been born again. Therefore I accept that she believes she has and may in fact have been. I settle for being back with us and apparently happy and otherwise her old tart, lusty self. She is as lusty a Pentecostal as she was a Southern Presbyterian. She likes as much as ever cooking a hearty breakfast, packing the kids off to school, and making morning love on our Sears Best bed, as we used to.

She loves the Holy Spirit, says little about Jesus.

She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body. In her case spirit has nothing to do with body. Each goes its own way. Even when she was a Presbyterian and I was a Catholic, I remember that she was horrified by the Eucharist: Eating the body of Christ. That’s pagan and barbaric, she said. What she meant and what horrified her was the mixing up of body and spirit, Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit — things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.

She’s happy, so I’ll settle for it. But a few things bother me. She attributes her conversion to a TV evangelist to whom she contributed most of her fortune plus a hundred dollar a week to this guy, which we cannot afford, or rather to his Gospel Outreach program for the poor of Latin America. I listened to this reverend once. He’d rather convert a Catholic Hispanic than a Bantu any day in the week.

She has also enrolled Tommy and Margaret in the Feliciana Christian Academy, which teaches that the world is six thousand years old and won’t have Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye in the library.

At least it’s better than Belle Ame, and the kids seem happy and healthy.

But I worry about them growing up as Louisiana dumbbells.

I might have held out for the parochial school, which was good, but it folded. The nuns vanished. The few priests are too overworked to bother. Catholics have become a remnant of a remnant. Louisiana, however, is more Christian than ever, not Catholic Christian, but Texas Christian. Even most Cajuns have been converted, first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists. The shrimp fleet, mostly born again, that is, for the third time, is no longer blessed and sprinkled by a priest.

Why don’t I like these new Christians better? They’re sober, dependable, industrious, helpful. They praise God frequently, call you brother, and punctuate ordinary conversation with exclamations like Glory! Praise God! Hallelujah! I’ve got nothing against them, but they give me the creeps.

— Walker Percy, from his novel The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)

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