:: Article

Religion in America

By James A. Reeves.

A woman on the Brooklyn-bound F train told everybody that they were going to hell during rush hour. She wore elaborate leather boots, a grey wool skirt with a matching jacket, and a maroon scarf. She was not asking for money. She had a proper hairstyle and nice earrings. She was not insane.

“Should you get hit by a car today, that will not be the hand of God, it will be the work of the Devil!” She blurted this out and never turned back, lecturing us about religion ­ the fire and brimstone kind of religion built on salvation, temptation, eternity, sinners, devils, repentance, the Lord Jesus Christ, damnation, and the antichrist. She said these words and many like them in a steady voice that was just a few clicks below shouting, yet loud enough to disturb my reading. I wasn’t particularly interested in The New Yorker‘s ten-page essay about neuroeconomics and loss aversion, but I resented being unable to continue. I tried to picture what her God might look like, pumped up with teeth bared and throwing lightning bolts from a crashing cloud in an apocalyptic sky. I looked up and found only advertisements for drinking diet beer, curing erectile dysfunction, and getting a job parking cars in Manhattan. The subway is no place to think about your soul.

At the Second Avenue stop, an old lady in a floppy purple hat pushed past the preaching woman. She flashed a bright smile and said, “I wish you good day, Ma’am, but you’re full of shit.” The preacher waved a
hand at the closing door, saying “Sister, I wish you a good day, too, but unless you accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart, I fear that your days shall be” ­and back to the hellfire.

An old man who looked like a giraffe sighed loudly and shook his head. Some people rolled their eyes and snorted, others loudly refolded their newspapers and snapped the pages of their magazines. They would not be deterred. “And in their freedom, they will fall into the abyss of the Devil,” she said.

I tried to make some progress with neuroeconomics, but the words were drowned by talk of redemption. I stared at the shapes on the page, pretending to read them, even turning the page to convince others of my fortitude. “Harm only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads,” she cried.

Enough. I dropped my magazine and stared at the woman. She had a nice purse and fuzzy gloves. As I said, she was neither destitute nor psychotic. If she were crazy, I wouldn’t have asked her to quiet down.
Public ranting is the one privilege we grant the mentally ill. Everybody else must go through proper channels.

“Excuse me,” I said. “You’ve made your point. Can you please move to another car now?” My voice came out thin and watery. It was the first time I’d caused a scene on the subway.

“You move!” she fired back in a voice that carried many years of experience with causing scenes. “I can see that you do not repent your sorcery or your immorality or your thefts!”

“My sorcery?” People were staring at me now and I had no choice except to press on. “You’re the one disturbing people, so why should I move? If your faith tells you to love and respect your neighbor . . . ”

She leaned over me and smiled. “And I do love you, brother, I really do. That’s why I am here this evening, warning you ­”

“Lady, I agree with him,” said a thick man with a pink face and a crew cut. “Why don’t ya take a hike? We’ve heard enough.” He made a sharp gesture with his thumb. “Move it along.”

A teenager leaned over and whispered something to his girlfriend and they erupted in nasty laughter. Soon all kinds of people were telling her to be quiet and shut up and fuck off and get the hell out of here.

She stood there and took it. Eyes closed with a martyr’s grin, her face was serene and I admired her for it. She tugged at the ends of her scarf and launched into a new sermon about how she could brave the
ridicule of the damned because even the smallest number of believers was strong enough to suffer the abuse of the masses. A tiny middle-aged woman with enormous glasses cried out that there was “no
way in hell that Christians were oppressed in America.” More shouting erupted. Sometimes four or five voices were arguing with the preacher and with each other. I returned to staring at my magazine, feeling like I just broke something.

We reached the Jay St.-Borough Hall stop and the woman got off the train, still reciting her verses about hell and salvation. The old man who looked like a giraffe tucked his newspaper under his arm and looked hard at me. “You gave her exactly what she wanted. You know that, don’t you? Best thing to do is just ignore them. Let them keep talking.”

Yes, but I could not concentrate on my reading.

James A. Reeves
is a writer, teacher, and designer. He writes about chivalry, typography, and techno music at www.kinosport.tv and he’s working on a big book about America called The Awful Making of an Optimist. His work has appeared in Skinless Capital: Neoliberalism & Resistance, Stick Up, New York! and What Happened to Us These Last Couple Years? An Anthology of the Bush Years. He currently lives in Helsinki.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 12th, 2009.