This is the content of my portion of the “Being a Southern Unitarian Universalist” service at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clemson on March 9, 2012. You can read what everyone said or even just listen to it. I think my version probably reads better than I delivered it, fair warning.
I did not grow up UU, but it feels like it. I was raised in the Lutheran church, which managed to be high church as well as liberal at the same time. Turns out Martin Luther was a good model, since he’s really the original church rebel. So, growing up Lutheran gives me some perspective on talking about today’s topic.
Now growing up in Clemson is a little different than growing up in South Carolina. I learned this lesson when I went to work. I grew up assuming everyone’s parents had Ph.D.s. Imagine my shock when I learned that some parents didn’t even have high school diplomas. The uneducated aspect of SC is different than most of my experience. Certainly there are plenty of conservative people with education: just last week my daughter told me that her language arts teacher (a Ph.D.) has made some nasty comments about liberals. When she said she doesn’t speak out, we told her that was the right thing to do. Lay low, it’s the best way, we advised. She’s in middle school. She’s not ready for the fight.
Growing up the daughter of liberal New England parents in the South, even if it’s in what was at least a moderate community, you could say I was pretty conflicted. In my home state, I was considered not really one of them; I didn’t even like fried chicken and sweet tea. However, you take me out of the South and suddenly I AM Southern. “This is my cousin Christine from SC: say y’all Christine” is how my cousins would introduce me to their friends. There was even an aspect of pity to my choice of home state: my schooling must be of less quality, I must be racist, it’s a shame I don’t have any culture around me. As a result, I frequently felt like a person who didn’t fit in anywhere.
And yet, here I am. I love my home state. I love the pace, the beauty. I’ve even found that we really aren’t the only home for the religious conservative: the North version is just more Catholic and honestly, I prefer the Baptist version. And while I counsel my daughter to lay low, I certainly speak out. Am I shunned for expressing my beliefs? Turns out I’m not.
You see, Southerners might prefer their politics conservative, but they also admire someone who can speak their beliefs, as long as they do it without being too condescending about it. They don’t want you telling them what to believe, so they can respect you as long as you don’t come across as an uppity know-it-all Northerner. The late conservative, very Southern Lewis Grizzard once said, “I’m a white man and I’m a Southerner. And I’m sick of being told what is wrong with me from outside critics, and I’m tired of being stereotyped as a refugee from ‘God’s Little Acre’.” While I mostly avoid conversations about politics with my conservative friends, their beliefs do make me think harder about my own. As a religious liberal in the South, I am no lamb. My beliefs are hard earned. Do I feel less Southern because of my beliefs? Well, no actually. I think I’m as Southern as I want to be. And truly, a real Southerner is a rebel. I am surrounded by examples of those that fought for their beliefs, even if I do not necessarily agree with them.
I don’t feel my point in being in the South is to change people’s politics (even it’d be great if everyone thought I was right.) Instead, I hope to set an example of the very thing Southerners ache for from the rest of the country: understanding. Rodney King once famously said “Can we all get along?” and that is what I hope for here. I hope that my very conservative neighbor can see that not all liberals are crazed heretics that wish to make abortion mandatory. I want to show my Jazzercise friend that while I’m happy she loves New Spring, I love my small liberal church community where we aren’t doing devil worship. I want to put a face on what’s become “the other side.” And to those that believe the South is full of uneducated conservative freaks, I’m out there showing that we’re far more complex than that, just as they are. A Midwest or Northern conservative is just a different flavor that what we have down here.
And so in the South I continue to proudly reside. I’ve learned to embrace the heritage of the area. I honor it by being proudly myself while trying to understand those around me with different beliefs. We all shape and inform each other. I’ll close with these words from Maya Angelou:
“The sisters and brothers that you meet give you the materials which your character uses to build itself. It is said that some people are born great, others achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. In truth, the ways in which your character is built have to do with all three of those. Those around you, those you choose, and those who choose you.”