Religious pressure on the Appalachian Trail

On our ORC trip along the Appalachian, we were often met with little tailgating stations called “trail magic,” tables often spread with granola bars, fresh coffee, water bottles and other small refreshments for weary hikers. These stations were set up mostly by Southern Baptist Congregations, who, for those who are unfamiliar, hold the teachings and accounts in the Bible literally. It’s a degree of extreme belief that we Lawrentians seldom encounter.

Lawrence is not by any means a very attractive place for those who hold steadfast in their belief of the Bible. The liberal arts education has an inherit bias against such intense degrees of belief, and there are small, private schools just like Lawrence in the South that educate their students upon a religious foundation, much like Wheaton College in northern Illinois.

One thing that the trail magic workers all had in common was their generosity and genuine interest in our ten-day endeavor. Some reminisced with us about their experiences along the Trail when they were our age; others simply stated that, as Jesus instructed, they would be charitable and kind to their fellow humans.

Although they belonged to congregations that make their mark with their literal reading of the Bible, it was hard to see the trail magic workers as what we liberal northerners would call “Bible-thumping, homophobic douchebags who think that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark.” Yet, there were two instances in which I did feel uncomfortable; when the trail magic workers, or whomever we encountered, pushed too far.

At the mom-and-pop diner where we stopped just before our hike, the waiter had long braided hair and wore a massive e-cigarette around his neck. After some small talk about our school and what brought us down to Georgia, he got on the topic of his skydiving career.

A colorful character indeed, but before we finished our food, he had lectured us about chemtrail conspiracy theories, collectively referred to all Arabs as ‘Abdul,” and he was convinced that the guy who painted his motorcycle had converted to Christianity because his Jesus on the gas tank was so detailed and glorious—with the physique of a professional body builder—that his faith was somehow restored.

We weren’t asking for it, and the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “Go ahead asshole, say something about eggs, or horn, or the Jewish media syndicate.” He thankfully said nothing that personally offended my heritage or me; an uncomfortable experience nonetheless. I still tipped him.

The second incident was at a trail magic station where I had a brief conversation with the worker about how we had mutual upbringings in Chicagoland. About halfway through the conversation, he abruptly drew my attention to the brochures he was handing out, featuring the latest quasi-empirical evidence for the existence of God. It was cold and rainy, and although I was enjoying my cinnamon roll, I can confidently say that his refutation of atheism—though not an atheist myself—soured the encounter.

The contrast between the pleasant, non-intrusive variety of Southern Baptist aid stations and the rude-intrusive variety raised an important ethical question regarding religious extremism: If somebody does you a huge favor—such as a making you a cheeseburger after hiking for seven days—do they deserve to articulate their religious beliefs? After all, that bacon cheeseburger nearly had me on my hands and knees, and shouting praise in the name of the Lord.

But I didn’t. Instead, I wondered if charity is wrong if it rests on the foundation of religious extremism. In return for their generosity, do they get to tell you why they made you that cheeseburger?

When you’re a big dude like me hiking the Trail, you get real hungry, and when you’re real hungry, hamburgers taste… do I dare say holy? There are many answers to that last question, so not as to offend both parties on either side of this river is as follows:

It depends on how tasty the cheeseburger is.

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