William Faulkner remarked in a novel that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. For some reason that quote’s stuck with me through several years, juxtaposed oddly in my mind with a statement from one of the old preachers who ordained me: once he observed to me that he had never, ever known how mean folks could really be until after he joined the church. I thought he was teasing me, in the rough manner older men used to rib young ones and maybe still do, but when I looked into his eyes I realized he was completely serious—and I couldn’t think of a single reply. The past isn’t even past, and how mean folks can be: all of it comes together for me in the tale of my single foray into mixing religion and politics as a pastor, and I still kick myself over the fool I was.
For years, the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in Johnson County was almost identical to the proportion of men who fought for the Union in the Civil War (Republicans, the majority) versus those who joined the Confederates (Democrats, the minority). And so, more than a century and a quarter after Appomattox, I found myself pastoring a church just across Levisa Fork from one of the few Democrat precincts in heavily Republican Johnson County: Greasy Creek, which also included Banjo Creek a little further downriver and which had once even been known as the Little Confederacy. It didn’t matter much that the Democrats and Republicans had almost completely switched political philosophies over the years, either. Several of my older members who lived nearest the church were as hardcore Democrat as you could get, their opinions solidified all the more by the Great Depression. Now, if you remember the 1980s and 1990s you know that several prominent televangelists had by then largely succeeded in branding one political party good and the other evil in the South’s public consciousness, but that didn’t matter to these folks. They felt like they knew right from wrong, and nobody would change their minds. And in any case, you didn’t talk about stuff like that in church. It was bad manners.
Just my luck, I had a visiting preacher that tried it. He was another out-of-stater like Brother Foale, though not from the same state, but evidently it was a place where that kind of pulpit talk was becoming accepted even within a traditionalist rural sect like ours. But when he started lambasting the President, my old members, especially the sisters in the left-hand corner right below the pulpit, suddenly went white around the mouth with indignation and started glaring daggers at him. They may not have paid any attention to Brother Foale’s Palm Sunday text but they sure picked up on this other fellow’s comments quickly enough, and I don’t recall ever seeing a bunch of sweet old ladies giving a preacher more baleful looks during a worship service in my life. My mind raced. What to do, grab the man’s coattail and seat him and shut him up? Sing him down, maybe? Both were historically valid options in our sect’s practice and I’d even done the latter once, but either could still cause a scandal and so in the interests of what I thought at the time was peace I waited on him to finish as patiently as I could, followed his sermon up with one of my own, and soon made my old sisters happy once again by criticizing the wife of a former President, of the other political party of course, for consulting astrologers. One thing must have canceled out the other in my members’ sensibilities, and most were once again willing to shake the visitor’s hand when the service was over. And for whatever it was worth to either of us, the Presidential critic was willing to shake the pastor’s hand too.
So who was the better man, him or me? Looking back, we both appear pretty sleazy in my estimation, and I’m still every bit as ashamed of and disgusted by the incident and my response as I was the day it happened. Hindsight’s twenty-twenty but now I wish I’d simply grabbed that man’s coattail and seated and silenced him, especially since he later did more to prove to me how right my older colleague was than any other man I ever worked with. Live and learn, I guess. This November if I see anybody in the blind man’s ditch from a similar blunder you can bet I’ll be offering a sympathetic hand up rather than a self-righteous foot down.