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In God’s Country
Douglas Kennedy

In God’s Country
Douglas Kennedy
London 1996

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America’s spiritual landscape is as expansive as a hypermarket, and its consumer choice just as intoxicating. Douglas Kennedy, equipped with a Ford Mustang and notebook, visits its backwaters in the deep South in order to gain first-hand insight into the religious culture of the Bible Belt. This book contains no grand historical sweep of America’s spiritual development, neither does it attempt to place the writer’s experience within a broader social context, and In God’s Country succeeds and fails for those very reasons.

It is the individual citizen that Kennedy is interested in, and the book is packed with fascinating encounters. These range from the mildly amusing to the faintly disturbing (although many of the characters can provoke both reactions) and at times the stories they tell, with voices that fight to explain ‘away’ the paradoxes inherent in religious conviction in this most unashamedly materialistic society, are poignant in their naiveté and conviction. We meet Sheila, corporate woman by day, exorcist by night; Carman, the musician from Nashville with the ‘intensified desire to make an eternal impact’; and Wally, self-styled missionary of the radio waves on Florida’s very own Grace FM, among many others.

Occasionally, and despite all the best intentions of neutrality, Kennedy cannot help sniggering at these characters, and although the superficiality of many aspects of America’s religious market is deserving of this treatment the book does suffer from confusion as to the seriousness of its subject. The characters are at their best when they speak for themselves rather than when they are described by the writer, and Kennedy’s self-imposed detachment comes across in a tone which prevents the reader from a closer examination of his subjects: ‘One by one, the disappointed of Lakeland were slain in the spirit and collapsed… I decided it was time for a beer.’ This, combined with some passages of decidedly lethargic naturalism: ‘She was only 25 – a slightly chunky doctor’s receptionist who was pleasantly attractive in that wholesome sort of way which is unashamedly American’, serve to blunt some of the impact of this travelogue.

In the latter chapters Kennedy spends some time examining large-scale religious institutions. He visits Jim and Tammy Bakker’s Heritage USA Christian theme park (complete with Heavenly Fudge Shoppe and Heaven Scent Perfumery), John Hopkins University (where the students all wear brown 1940s suits and attend dating ‘parlours’) and, lastly, the State Correctional Facility in Carolina (where the preacher on Death Row is an ex-convict and one-time murderer). Kennedy should have spent more time here, for it is on Death Row that the sniggering stops, and here where the bewildering mindset of American Christianity finds perhaps its most paradoxical expression. While sitting in on a service at Death Row’s chapel, he writes: ‘To hear a group of condemned men sing those lyrics [Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot] was to be rendered inarticulate’. It is perhaps the most fitting end to a book so full of strangely empty words.

Reviewed by Simon Peters


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