Notes From The Dark Heart Of The Bible Belt
C.C. O'Hanlon takes a journey through Oklahoma - its history, literature, and unique attitudes to race, religion and money.
On the large, mushroom-like water tower above Elk City, Oklahoma, a rural town of about 11,000 souls just an hour’s drive from the border of Texas, a three-metre-high, hand-painted sign announced that this was the Home of Susan Powell, Miss America, 1981.
It was Sunday evening. My pregnant wife and I had driven all day across the dusty North Texas panhandle, a cold, hard wind blowing sagebrush and grit against the windshield. Now, as we passed fields of freshly tilled, red soil on the outskirts of Elk City, the air was still and humid.
“Tornado weather,” my wife said. A part-Cherokee native of Oklahoma, she knew the signs well.
We turned off Interstate 40 to search for a motel, falling in behind a beat-up, black Cadillac Seville as it sharked from the exit to the town’s wide main street. As the old car pulled up in front of a small, steepled, white clapboard church, we noticed a bumper sticker on its rusted rear mudguard: I’m reddened by his blood. Jesus Christ. We slowed to look at some of the churchgoers. Stiff-necked, skeletal old men with the resigned demeanour of undertakers pulled disconsolately on their starched shirt collars as their wives, heavy-set women in ankle-length floral frocks, some with dense beehive hairdos that seemed to melt into the rubbery folds of their necks, gossiped among themselves. They shuffled past a black-suited pastor who stood like a shadowy, slightly sinister figure from an Edward Gorey illustration at the entrance to greet them.
Inside, the tinny wheeze of a harmonium accompanied a few discordant voices singing an unfamiliar hymn. The notes hung in the evening air like a lament.
Elk City was my first glimpse of the so-called Bible Belt, the deep, fervent trench of Protestantism that runs eastwards from the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and above them the Kansas/Colorado border, and straddles the traditional geographical and cultural divide between the old Union north and the Confederate south, to the coasts of Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. It threads through some of North America’s worst ghettoes of rural poverty, a poverty indifferent to the racially biased economics of its large cities: according to US census statistics, in the back-country farming communities across the South that are furthest from metropolitan centres, white, black, Hispanic and native American all share the same hard-scrabble grind that gives real meaning to the phrase “dirt poor”.
The land around Elk City lends itself to biblical metaphor. Neither expansive nor picturesque, there is something pared down and almost puritanical about the unkempt hedgerows and stands of gnarled hickory and oak that enclose fertile, arable smallholdings. The surrounding flatlands are stark and unprotected from the moist equinoctial depressions that bring fierce southerly gales, thunderstorms and the threat of destructive tornados and flooding. (As the adage has it: “When the wind blows in Texas, Oklahoma sucks!”) In winter, the temperature can drop a score of degrees below freezing, turning the air to ice and blighting the autumn plantings of winter wheat and sorghum. At the height of summer, a harsh sun heats even the few patches of shade to well above 42ºC, where it simmers for weeks on end until the last drops of moisture evaporate and the earth becomes as brittle as kiln-heated clay.
The locals are the spiritual ancestors of the Joads, the fictional Okie farmers who were the heart of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Memories of the Great Depression are still vivid among them. Back then, Western Oklahoman families were crushed by drought and debt so they abandoned their homesteads to migrate westwards from the worsening dustbowl to work as low-paid fruit- and vegetable-pickers on abundant southern Californian plantations: “Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one.” The long drive across half the country on the narrow, two-lane blacktop known as Route 66 – with the few possessions they had managed to keep out of the hands of county sheriffs piled high on the backs of small, rickety trucks – was a hardship, but traversing the last few hundred kilometres across the empty south-western desert was like an Old Testament trial of their faith. Somehow, they endured, despite the press of evidence that if their God did exist, he was all out of mercy and had long since turned his back on them.
Maybe it takes a long haul across the ragged flatlands of the central plains to begin to understand why the roots of American evangelism are planted so deep in this part of the country, and why it appears, much like the land itself, to be at once bountiful and unforgiving. It also takes some time living around it, as I did for three years in Oklahoma, to understand how it can insinuate itself into even an insistently secular life, comforting you with its fellowship, its pervasive sense of community, and presenting the solace of a reductive world view, in which everything is neatly constructed as a choice between good and evil. If you didn’t think about it too much, it’s easy to embrace – and the one thing that can be said of most people in this part of the country is that they are pre-Socratic: they don’t like to think.
A few hundred kilometres to the north-east of Elk City, Oklahoma’s second-largest metropolitan area, Tulsa, is the self-proclaimed buckle of the Bible Belt. Home to several thousand Christian congregations and churches, very few of them mainstream, the business of evangelism is as important to Tulsa’s economy as American Airlines, medical care and energy.
It wasn’t always so. The area was first settled in 1836 by the so-called Five Civilised Tribes – the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles. Forced to surrender their homelands east of the Mississippi to the federal government by the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the tribes were escorted by the United States Cavalry on a forced migration westwards along what became known as the Trail of Tears. Christianity arrived with the St Louis and San Francisco Railroad from the West coast in the form of a Presbyterian missionary, the Reverend Robert Loughbridge, who delivered the city’s first sermon from the front porch of a local store. But while the first church was, not surprisingly, also Presbyterian, its founding congregation was made up of converted Creeks. Creek and Cherokee pastors quickly established Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches to serve native settlements.
It took more time to convert the rangy cowboys and Indian traders who were the city’s first white settlers. The first white minister, a Presbyterian, the Reverend William Penn Haworth, endured three years of his congregation’s unrepentant sinfulness before he delivered a fiery admonishment from the pulpit about the evils of alcohol. He was beaten bloody and left for dead in the street; when he regained consciousness, he resigned – and fled, like many before and after him, to California.
The city’s first black ministers, who arrived at the turn of the century, were a little more cautious, not least because racial prejudice was, and still is, a raw, ugly cicatrix across this part of Oklahoma. The first black churches were denoted as “Negro” – as in “Negro only” – on a 1911 city map published by Sanborn, and one of them, Brown’s Chapel, at 307 North Frankfort Avenue, went so far as to describe itself as “Colored Methodist Episcopal”. Still, that probably just inflamed Tulsa’s deeply ingrained bigotry. In 1921, when leaders of the prosperous black neighbourhood of Greenwood, in Tulsa, tried to thwart a mob lynching of a young black man unjustly accused of a sexual assault on a young white woman, it degenerated into an all-out urban war that became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, and black churches were among the first targets. About 300 blacks were killed – their bodies dumped into an unmarked mass grave at a municipal cemetery, where they lay undiscovered for half a century – and several thousand more were driven into the countryside as rampaging armed gangs destroyed their homes and businesses. God-fearing whites had no qualms about smiting down their black brothers, whose Christianity, they might have argued, was less righteous, less devout than their own.
There’s a rich tradition of cynicism and hypocrisy in the predominantly white Christian evangelism of the Bible Belt. The first charismatic preachers learned how to work a crowd at the feet of itinerant snake-oil salesmen and smooth-talking carney spiritualists who bilked small change from the naïve country folk that gathered to watch their shows. Fire-and-brimstone ministers at the turn of the century understood the importance of clever stagecraft – they kept the tents and wagons the snake-oil salesman left behind when patent medicines began to be sold at general stores – and the use of dire hyperbole to ensure a congregation’s rapt attention. But it wasn’t until nearly a century later, in the 1980s – about the time when American capitalism began to embrace the oily Gordon Gekko ethos, “Greed is good” – that Christian evangelism really found its ideal medium: cable TV.
Oddly, it wasn’t the urbane example of Billy Graham, until then the most successful Christian preacher in America and possibly the world, that set the standard for a new, less polished generation of television preachers. It was the ambling, “aw shucks” populism of the then president, Ronald Reagan. His well-rehearsed political choreography enabled him to dance around even the most serious issues that assailed his administration, while still appearing to be elegant and statesman-like to his well-heeled backers, and cosily humane and folksy to white working-class and rural voters for whom, amazingly, he embodied everything that was right and good about the American dream. He was, after all, as he often said, “blessed by God”.
With easy access to capital, and booming prices multiplying the value of their churches’ long-held real estate assets, it took less than a heartbeat for Reagan’s religious ward-heelers – Pat Robertson, who was already a wealthy evangelical media mogul, and the self-appointed leader of the media-conceived Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, as well as the less credible but no less ambitious B team of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Oral Roberts – to 'get' it. Boosting their existing celebrity, built over decades of nickel-and-dime tent shows, travelling ministries and radio sermons, and increasing their quarterly turnovers by tens of millions of dollars, they each overcame their slightly cartoonish personas and country bumpkin drawls to become shrewd, rich media players courted by politicians who needed their endorsements and with them, the votes of their loyal television constituencies.
All it took was a few slick, if sometimes barely credible, crusades that no longer focused on the anachronistic notion of converting sinners but on capturing a bigger share of an audience – an audience that, thanks to cheap cable access, was now in front of a television set (and still listening to a radio) nearly 24 hours a day.
One of the most shameless of television evangelists was Jim Bakker, who misappropriated $US158 million of his TV ministry’s contributions, diverting them through 47 bank accounts in his own name and squandering them on, among other things, dozens of cars, six mansions, each appointed with $60,000-worth of solid gold bathroom fixtures, and hush money ($265,000 to be exact) to his mistress, Jessica Hahn. More shameless, in some ways, was Tulsa’s own, Oral Roberts. He claimed on television that he had had a vision of a 300-metre-tall Jesus, who told him to build (with his congregation’s money) his City of Faith Medical and Research Centre, a soaring tower in faux-gilded steel and reflective golden glass that opened in 1981 and closed eight years later when it proved too costly and impractical to run. In 1986, the then 68-year-old Roberts announced that God had told him he would be “called home” – in other words, die – unless he was able to raise $US8 million in donations over the next 12 months. When the deadline passed, Roberts announced that his life had been spared, but that didn’t stop him from claiming a few months later that he had recently resurrected the dead. As for his own death, the weaselly preacher claimed he would return soon after to rule the earth alongside Jesus Christ.
Oral Roberts’s unvarnished (some might say blasphemous) attempts to blur the divide between evangelism and business came along just in time to “rescue” Tulsa.
In 1901, the discovery of oil in Red Fork, a small town just outside of Tulsa, on the southern banks of the Arkansas River, was the first of a series of strikes, including the rich Glen Pool Field, that over the next quarter of a century would turn Oklahoma into the biggest oil producer in the South and Midwest, bigger even than Texas, and Tulsa into 'The Oil Capital of the World'. With more than 2,000 wells in operation in the city, it was the logical headquarters for many of North America’s major oil drillers, refiners and distributors, fuelling a network of subsidiary economies as the demand increased for drilling rigs, derricks, storage facilities, pipelines and pipeline stations, refineries and processing plants, powerhouses (central power), loading racks, petroleum-production camps, tract housing for company employees, corporate buildings and mansions for wealthy oil executives.
By the middle of the century, the wells were running dry and although farming and mining sustained outlying communities, even the arrival of an American Airlines maintenance plant and the continued prosperity of one of the city’s largest employers, the Williams company – which moves 300 million cubic metres of natural gas through 23,500 kilometres of interstate pipelines every day to supply 12 per cent of the natural gas consumed in the US – could not stave off an economic slump. Thousands of unemployed, uneducated roughnecks and their families were sitting ducks for predatory charismatics who came from all over the state to set up makeshift churches and offer spiritual respite from the joyless hustle for below-minimum-wage jobs in a flooded labour pool.
I first went to Tulsa in 1989 when my wife, a Tulsa native descended from local Cherokee and 19th-century French and German settlers, took me there to meet her family. The city was still scuffling – whole blocks of the business district were empty and boarded up, and there were long lines of people queuing outside the soup kitchen at the Salvation Army mission downtown – but there was a sense that better times were just around the corner. American Airlines had turned a small maintenance facility at Tulsa International Airport into a major regional base, and with increased flights to American’s international hub in Dallas, a half-hour flight away, several large corporations, including Dollar and Thrifty Rent-A-Cars and TV Guide, were considering Tulsa for their national headquarters. The city had always remained the main resource of skilled oil workers for fields all over the world, including the Middle East and South America, but with the construction of several, new, well-equipped medical centres, day surgeries and private hospitals, and the expansion of the already large private hospitals servicing the city, Tulsa was becoming, in the words of a local politician, “the specialist care centre of the Mid-South”.
Thanks to Oral Roberts, from whose less-than-shining example the local charismatics learnt how to work their congregations to increase revenues from tithes, donations and even merchandise sales, Tulsa’s churches thrived even during the worst of the slump. Every day new ones appeared, sometimes in the most unlikely forms, in the most unlikely places.
There were still scores of small, unadorned, timber chapels in every neighbourhood, but there were also those set up as storefronts in strip malls, right there between the Starbucks or Denny’s franchise and Gap, Rite Aid or RadioShack, and even one in a nondescript warehouse on an industrial estate where the other tenants were a John Deere tractor-parts supplier, a timber yard, a bulk feed wholesaler and a specialist panel beater.
Then there were the bigger churches. Many had been founded as small, rural churches on tracts of unkempt land on the outskirts of the city. As Tulsa’s sprawling suburban development edged closer, they increased their congregations – and the value of the tithes they received. Some churches built primary schools or day-care centres for pre-schoolers or walk-in medical centres, others conceived even larger complexes that included small stadiums, theatres and broadcast facilities. The most successful bought high-rise corporate offices where they could manage their now multimillion-dollar financial operations, from the funding of overseas missions, mostly in Central and South America, to the negotiation of new cable and satellite slots to distribute church programming in foreign markets.
Every conceivable faith was represented – Anglican, Apostolic, Assembly of God, Baptist, Brethren, Calvary, Catholic, Church of Christ, Church of God, Congregational, Episcopal, Evangelical, Foursquare, Lutheran, Mennonite, Messianic, Methodist, Nazarene, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Seventh-day Adventist and Vineyard were just some of the Christian denominations – but it was the charismatic evangelicals that grew their churches into big businesses, with tax-free turnovers that ranged from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of millions. That these sums were derived in large part from donations by those in the community who could least afford them – and in many cases had sacrificed basic needs to scrape together the money – did not appear to give anyone, least of all the preachers, pause.
As Pat Robertson declared, 23 years ago, in an infamous taped sermon: “Satan has gone! God has just healed somebody! A hernia has been healed! Several people are being healed of haemorrhoids and varicose veins! People with flat feet! God is doing just great things to you!”
Evangelists work with missionary zeal to target those who will, quite literally, buy the idea that redemption is just a matter of the right-sized donation. “Give generously so that you will be saved,” one Tulsa preacher is famous for telling his working-class flock, which is transfixed by his vivid assertions of an imminent apocalypse, a biblical “end of days”, and his histrionic readings from The Revelation of St John the Divine. Maybe because it inspires such compelling performances, eschatology is not so much an area of theological study among charismatic evangelists as it is a sales tool.
"I can feel the power of the Lord in this home,” the plumber said. He was standing in his damp overalls at the edge of our living room, gripping the wooden shaft beneath a bright red, rubber toilet plunger as he admired a wall decorated with Mexican crucifixes and crude devotional paintings of the Virgin Mary. My wife, who was not a religious woman, had collected them over several years as we travelled together around the American South-West. “I can tell these things,” he went on. “I can tell when the Lord has visited his blessings on a place. That’s why I became a preacher – to share my personal understanding of the Lord’s way.” Offering him a thin smile, I gripped his elbow and gently lead him back to the open maw of a cracked and leaking toilet bowl.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I, too, was a preacher. I had impressive documents – one from the World Christianship Ministries, the other from the Progressive Universal Life Church – attesting to it, both framed and hanging on the wall of my study, and my credentials, acquired on the web, had been filed with the court clerk of Bixby county to enable me to perform marriages anywhere in the state. I had even incorporated a church for which I had applied for tax exemption, not because I had any intention of gathering a congregation but because I wanted to see just how far, as a sceptical atheist, I could go in establishing a “legitimate” religious organisation. So far I had invested less than $500 – in “donations” to the two churches that provided me with ministerial recognition, and in fees for the paperwork to create the legal entity of my church. All I needed now was a clapboard chapel, a sturdy pulpit and a congregation.
Actually, the clapboard chapel and pulpit were optional.
My wife, our three children and I were then living in a large, six-bedroom house on one of the many gated estates that had been built in the countryside south of Tulsa. Our neighbours were mainly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – lawyers, cardiologists, plastic surgeons, computer-software designers and oil executives – who, when they were not working, pursued the predictable elements of the American Dream: they bought expensive foreign cars, which they polished every weekend, played golf at the local country club with colleagues, took their kids to softball and soccer practice and never missed a Sunday service at the local church. They also held prayer breakfasts at local coffee shops and took turns to host Bible discussion groups in their homes. One or two were credentialed ministers – their credentials just as dubious as my own, but taken a deal more seriously – who presided over Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas services in their homes attended by friends, relatives and neighbours.
Home services were common all over Tulsa. A few were the foundation for successful full-time “faith enterprises” that catered to congregations of no more than a hundred. As with other churches, these home operations were tithed, and even the most squirrelly of personal tax plans could not compete with the total tax exemption they claimed on their revenue. All you needed to make a buck was confidence, a little charisma and the correct choice of biblical references.
Well, not quite all. As a musician friend of mine from New Orleans observed, when he heard I had bought a house in Tulsa: “Ah, home to Jesus and crystal meth’!” If anything outnumbered the churches in the city, it was the garage laboratories synthesising “the shitkicker’s cocaine”. Thanks to the wholesale distribution networks of outlaw bikers like the Bandidos, the Mongols and the Rolling 30 Bloods, as well as the predominantly black street gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, and the Latino South Side Locos and Mara Salvatrucha, crystalised methamphetamine had become one of Oklahoma’s highest revenue commodities.
"What’s the worst that could happen: that they learn to love their neighbour and learn the difference between right and wrong?”
Martha was a former oil executive who lived across the street from me. Her husband continued to work as a senior vice-president for a Texas drilling company. They were typical of the residents of our estate – rich, Republican and Baptist – except that Martha was black, and perhaps because of that, we became friends. I was the neighbourhood’s only foreigner, tolerated but not entirely understood, my accent as incomprehensible as Aramaic to most of my neighbours.
Martha had asked if my family would like to join her at a church-sponsored picnic in parklands adjoining her church after the Sunday service. I didn’t say anything – just cocked an eyebrow at her and smiled. She knew me too well to be hurt.
On the face of it, she had made a seductively simple point. Any parent wants his young children to grow into upright, socially responsible adults and anything that might contribute to that, including going to church, should not be dismissed too quickly. And yet I had a problem with that “difference between right and wrong”. America’s politicians, civil servants and military commanders might stoop to baby talk – “we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys” – to defend their country’s reasons for being at war, but I was unconvinced that the definition of good or bad was so easily articulated. I also wasn’t sure how I was going to get across the subtle but still essential nuances I saw in it to my children, or even if I should, but I suspected that the preacher at Martha’s church would not have the same hesitation.
Resolve is part of what evangelical Christianity is all about. There is no questioning, no hesitation; as I heard one television preacher put it, “With faith, there is always certainty” – even if there is really none to be had. In the main, evangelicals toe the line of middle American prejudices, having no truck with socialism, pacifism, homosexuality, evolution, gun restrictions (all good Christians should own one) and liberal attempts to take God out of the classroom, court and local and federal government. They were encouraged by America’s split, under George W. Bush, into “faith-based” and “reality-based” constituencies, and are happy to concede irreconcilable differences with that half of the country that is not yet willing to give up reasoned discourse or a confidence in scientific investigation. These days, they also stand ready to go mano-a-mano with Islam – to hear some of the faithful tell it, their born-again Texan President should get on and finish the job that was started by the Crusaders 908 years ago: “Just nuke them troublesome Ay-rabs and Eye-raqis out of existence!” an elderly woman demanded during a phone-in on a popular Tulsa radio show.
The trouble is, the rectitude of the Bible Belt, where faith-based politics have been the way of things since the1950s, does not stand up well to scrutiny. Collectively, the Bible Belt states have the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country, about 105 per thousand – overall, the US has the highest rate in the world – and the highest rates of syphilis and gonorrhoea. Oklahoma has the country’s highest infant mortality rate and the highest mortality rate – three times the national average – of abused children. In Tulsa alone, 20 per cent of all children live at or below the poverty line. And along with Texas and Louisiana, Oklahoma has the highest rates of incarceration: worse, of the approximately 22,000 people arrested each year in Oklahoma for drug offences alone, 2,000 are under 18.
In the end, we went to church with Martha. My children enjoyed the experience and although I cavilled silently about every line in the earnest, young preacher’s down-to-earth homily, I was taken with the sincerity of the shared faith, and afterwards, the friendliness. I wondered, just for a minute, how we non-believers are able to live with the spiritual void within us. How do we find meaning in the everyday of our lives? It’s easy enough to find reasons to live but meaning, and the restless longing for it, is more complex, more elusive and insistent. A religious faith sublimates it – and for many people, especially those millions all along the Bible Belt for whom every day is a struggle, that is probably enough: "For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8).
C.C. O'Hanlon is something of a 'wild' polymath. Tech'-entrepreneur-turned-internet-apostate, photographer, small press publisher, sea-steader, map collector and ceaseless traveller, his occasional writings have been published in The New York Times, Griffith Review, and elsewhere.