An Immersion in Deep South Culture

An incident that bids fair to become the latest “religious liberty” case is kinda hard for me to ignore, since I attended the church in question many times as a child, and my grandmother served lunch at (and my father graduated from) the school in question. Here’s the story from Atlanta television station WXIA:

A Georgia school district is investigating after video of a mass baptism was posted on YouTube.

The video, posted by First Baptist Villa Rica, was shot on school grounds just before football practice. “We had the privilege of baptizing a bunch of football players and a coach on the field of Villa Rica High School! We did this right before practice! Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!” the caption with the video reads.

By Tuesday evening, the video had been removed from YouTube.

The Carroll County School system released a statement Tuesday afternoon:

“The Carroll County School System was made aware of a situation that took place at Villa Rica High School prior to football practice on August 17th. The District is currently looking into the specifics of this situation and will take appropriate steps to ensure all state and federal laws are followed.”

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Carroll County Tuesday asking the district to “immediately investigate and take action to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events”. In the letter, the FFRF mentioned its lawsuit against Emanuel County School District for similar practices. The group is now seeking punitive and personal liability damages in that case. “We prefer to settle these matters cooperatively,” the letter ends with a request to detail the steps the school district is taking to comply with the First Amendment.

“I can’t remember another case like this,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “It’s really misusing the authority of the coach to promote his personal religious agenda.”

My first mental image when reading about this was of the Chinese warlord who legend has it decided to convert to Christianity and had his army baptized on a parade ground with water hoses.

Baptists, of course, require full immersion, so a “feeding trough” was deployed, according to an article by Fox News’ Todd Starnes. Before indulging himself with a rant against the “godless bullies” who object to the use of public property for religious ceremonies led by school employees, Starnes also clarifies for us that the football coach was initially the one being baptized, and an undisclosed number of players followed suit.

This is one of those stories that baffle people who’ve never lived in the Deep South, where football is kinda sacred and most people can’t imagine anyone getting excited over a voluntary religious exercise at a school whose student body is probably 80% Southern, National, or fundamentalist-independent Baptist. Tell these folks they should have had the coach’s baptism less than a mile away in the font at First Baptist Villa Rica, and they’ll look at you like you are speaking Urdu. Why would we go to that all that trouble?

This is why Thomas Jefferson liked to talk about a “wall” between church and state (which believe it or not Baptists used to share, and indeed thought of as a signature belief of their faith community before David Barton taught then upside-down history and constitutional law). The concept takes away all these hazy incidents where you can stare sideways at them and conclude it’s not a big deal. But what’s sad about it is the lead-pipe certainty that before even asking if anyone was offended by the football field baptisms, the people who participated will themselves take offense at their “liberties” being violated. And next thing you know the Duck Dynasty clan and their buddy Bobby Jindal will weigh in. It’s a crying shame.

UPDATE: Yes, David_in_Nashville, I’m familiar with the kind of facility Baptists use for immersions, having been immersed myself. And matter of fact, the Disciples of Christ church I currently attend has one too. It just slipped my mind that they were called “baptistries” rather than “fonts.” But thanks for keeping me on my toes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.