The role of religion in the Deep South

Religious belief has always been an important part of American life, but has it seeped into parts of the nation which should be kept secular. Justin Webb travels to the most religious state in the union to find out.

BBC News/May 7, 2005
By Justin Webb

From the air, Mississippi has the colour and texture of fresh broccoli - at a distance the trees look tightly coiled - rich green in the sunlight, purple patches in the shade.

Mississippi is home to millions of trees, and not many millions of people.

It is a verdant, sweaty place. As your plane comes down to land there are glints all around of sunlight on still water, meandering rivers, reservoirs and swamps, where the line between the still brown liquid and the vegetation is blurred.

The state is mostly rural and poor, shacks and mobile homes nestling under the canopy of the forest, rusting pick-up trucks bouncing down dirt roads.

And churches, everywhere churches.


Pristine Catholic cathedrals with long, pointy towers, cool and confident looking with wide lawns and copious car parks. Baptist houses of worship, with those vaguely threatening messages on billboards outside - Jesus is coming - where are you going?

And in the denser undergrowth, the deeper heart of the state, tiny little brick buildings some not much bigger than a garage.

There are more churches per head of population in Mississippi than in any other state and, historically, you could argue, more racial prejudice, more unchristian behaviour.

I came to Mississippi assuming, in a European secular sort of way, that holy scripture, which once led Mississippi whites down the road of bigotry, was unlikely to be the state's saviour today.

On the radio the so-called family Christian station was explaining why God invented women and the Devil invented feminism.

So far, so predictable. But a visit to Mississippi in 2005 provides a reminder that while religion has motivated all manner of charlatans and creeps in American life and still does, it is also the primary motivation for many of those who genuinely do good and are not collecting money or condemning other people's vice.

In a nation without anything but the most basic social services, without a National Health Service, many of those picking up the pieces are religious, often fundamentalist, Christians.

To be sure the president has encouraged this trend, but in Mississippi I did not get the impression that they needed much encouragement from far-off Washington.


I went to a prison housing the most dangerous young offenders, considered so beyond the pale that they are being tried as adults.

The American penal system is brutal, the sentences are long and the conditions harsh.

I had been invited to this place by Dr John Perkins, a renowned black prison visitor, a man who brings bibles and talks to the kids about the lives they might one day lead.

I assumed we would be treated with icy courtesy by the whites who run the place.

But I got it all wrong.

We had been inside for two minutes when a request, an order, came that we were to lunch with the sheriff, the man in charge. He was a redneck straight out of central casting, huge and menacing.

Then suddenly, as giggly as a schoolgirl, he hugged Dr Perkins and thanked Jesus Christ for the food.

Over lunch he told their story of a meeting at a prayer breakfast which led to an invitation for Dr Perkins to visit the jail.

A couple of highly motivated evangelical Christians have built a personal relationship unthinkable in even the recent past and are now significantly improving the lives of mainly black 16- and 17-year-old murderers and rapists - people the rest of the nation is happy to lock up and forget.

Religious fervour

This was surprise enough, but there was more to come.

We were introduced to Cynthia Cockerne, an elderly, frail white woman who has been running the rudimentary prison education effort. She was a person of quite extraordinary cheery religious fervour, in almost every sentence she referred to the Lord.

She and Dr Perkins did their stuff with the kids. When we said our goodbyes, Dr Perkins walked out with me and announced casually: "That woman is a saint, and to think that her great uncle killed my brother."

It was a racist killing, unpunished as they all were in those days in these parts, which this elderly couple had only realised linked them when they chatted recently about places where they had lived and events they had witnessed.

They are reconciled now and working hard to make life better in modern Mississippi.

I think the so called Christian right has overplayed its political hand in George Bush's America, but the power of evangelism at the grassroots is still huge.

The televangelists and the religious fire and brimstone politicians come and go but Dr Perkins, Mrs Cockerne and the sheriff are a mighty engine and they will still be hard at work long after Mr Bush has gone.

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