A friend told me recently how she and her husband decided to take their 9-year-old son out of public school and find a safer environment for him to learn. In the process of shopping around, they inquired at several local Christian schools and learned more than they wanted to know about the Christian mind-set in the Lowcountry.
The couple is secular enough, which might explain why they were more than a little taken aback to discover that the Christian schools in question required parents to make a statement of faith before their children could be enrolled. These statements tend to sound like the Apostle's Creed, detailing the miraculous and mysterious things a true believer is supposed to accept.
Several of them even require a testimonial statement in which the parents write a narrative description of their come-to-Jesus moment — when and where this event occurred, under what circumstances — the kind of thing evangelicals seem comfortable talking about.
I was familiar with such statements, because they are required of faculty members at Charleston Southern University. Presumably Al Parish, CSU's once-celebrated economics guru, signed these statements when he joined the faculty of the Southern Baptist-supported school. This became the source of some consternation at CSU when Parish ran amok and was charged with defrauding hundreds of investors — including his employer — out of millions of dollars. He is now awaiting sentencing for that breech of faith.
My friends thought they had seen it all until they contacted Grace Christian Academy in Ladson. On Grace Christian's website was the mother of all statements of faith. To enroll their children in this God-fearing institution, parents had to pledge that "[t]he one who dies in his sins without Christ is hopelessly and eternally lost in the Lake of Fire, and therefore, has no further opportunity of hearing the Gospel or repenting. The Lake of Fire is literal. The terms 'eternal' and 'everlasting' used in describing the duration of the punishment of the damned in the Lake of Fire carry the same thought and meaning of endless existence as used in denoting the duration of joy and ecstasy of saints in the presence of God."
The Lake of Fire is literal. Not metaphorical or allegorical. As literal as the beer in my hand!
So where is this Lake of Fire? Can we tap into it to meet our looming energy crisis? Would the high sulfur content prove problematic?
These were some of the questions I wanted to ask the Rev. Randy Wade, principal of Grace Christian Academy; unfortunately, he did not return my phone call.
I also wanted to ask the good reverend, what is the proper age to teach children that they are going to burn for eternity in said Lake of Fire if they do not shut up and get on board with God's program? I wanted to ask him what this silly nonsense had to do with being a fit and loving parent or enrolling a child in school.
I wanted to ask, but on further reflection, I'm glad I didn't. But the Lake-of-Fire moment did provide an insight into what is so terribly wrong with the South.
According to a study released last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 45 percent of South Carolinians call themselves evangelicals, a figure that roughly represents the religious composition of the South at large. By contrast, only 26 percent of the U.S. population identifies itself as evangelical.
Many of these southern evangelicals subscribe to the idea of a fierce and angry god, the kind of god who keeps a Lake of Fire in his basement to torture the souls of those he doesn't like. It is a religion of fear, in which followers and backsliders alike are terrorized with images of hellfire and eternal torment should they fail to believe as they are told.
That psychology of fear translates into the real world of society and politics. I was raised in South Carolina, and I remember how fear permeated all aspects of public life — fear of black people, fear of communism, fear of outsiders, fear of the future. Hope was a word almost alien to the white southern mind. Besieged on all sides by material and metaphysical enemies, white southerners could only cling to a mythic past, which they felt slipping away.
Such people are easily manipulated by preachers and politicians. One only need look at the way they have herded white southerners into the Republican Party to know that it is true. Fear of terrorism and homosexuals keeps white southerners in line and voting for the GOP. Nothing good has ever come out of fear.
At least my friends' son is now enrolled in a secular school, where we can hope he will learn to think for himself.