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By Cathy Newman
It was Thursday night in Dayton, Tennessee, and from the McDonald's on Highway 27 you could hear the sound of gospel music floating high above the Golden Arches. It was fast food for the soul—a mix of Big Macs and hymns like "Hillbilly Heaven" and "Have a Little Talk With Jesus." Among the gathered was Marcella Harris, who used to be a honky-tonk singer but changed her tune and was saved. And Henry Harris (no relation), who answered the call 25 years ago when he was running a bulldozer in a gravel pit and heard the voice of the Lord in the sound of the machine's gears.
The McDonald's gospel sing has been going for two years and is so popular that, word has it, Wendy's is about to start one too. "There's also one at the Hardee's in Soddy-Daisy," a town 20 minutes down the road, Anna Kyle informed me. A tiny woman with a mass of golden curls, Kyle acts as unofficial hostess for the big sing. "Hardee's holds theirs the same night as ours," she added. She did not look pleased.
In Dayton you can spend practically every night worshiping: the Wednesday night prayer meeting, the gospel sing on Thursday, a Friday night "Jesus Jam" (Jesus is an "awesome dude," one teen explained), and a performance by the Dayton Christian Ballet on Saturday.
To the question "Why are folks in Dayton so passionately religious?" Daytonians would answer: "Why is everyone else not?" There are places to live, and there are communities. Dayton is a community. It's a town where generosity is a given, whether in the form of a casserole or a grant for a local college, a place where kids grow up without the threat of drive-by shootings. It is founded on the rock-hard conviction that the world—not to mention Dayton, Tennessee—runs by the grace of God.
This is Bible Belt country. The defining question is not "What do you do?" but "What church do you belong to?" Dayton is the county seat of Rhea (pronounced ray) County, where there are some 130 churches for 28,000 people, from small rural wood frames to the mainstream big brick First Baptist downtown.
There's a lot to give thanks for. First, the setting. Dayton snuggles in the Tennessee River Valley between the Smoky Mountains and the long slow roll of the Cumberland Plateau. Then the salt-of-the-earth people—about 6,000 of them—who work and pray hard. There's a healthy economy, based on manufacturing plants like La-Z-Boy, which assembles 3,000 recliners a day, and a near-record low unemployment rate of 4.4 percent. Last, but far from least, is the Rhea County High School football team. To bear witness to a victory of the Golden Eagles is the closest thing to heaven on earth.
The town itself is a tidy gridwork centered on a courthouse square. Gossip Central is the Dayton Coffee Shoppe, where biscuits, not bagels, rule. A topping of gravy, while not obligatory, is the local taste. "Brown gravy, not that wallpaper-paste-like white gravy," one regular explained.
Dayton also is the town made famous by the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial that matched the flamboyant lawyer William Jennings Bryan against the equally showy Clarence Darrow over whether or not John Scopes, a high school science teacher, had violated House Bill No. 185, which made it "unlawful . . . to teach . . . that man has descended from a lower order of animals." Scopes, acting as a guinea pig to test the law, lost.
Scopes taught at the old county high school, on a hill overlooking the town. The present-day high school is a low brick building that sits in farmland ten miles away. There is an after-school Bible Club and, once upon a time not too long ago, prayers at graduation. When I asked if evolution was part of the curriculum, Pat Conner, the principal, replied, "We teach—no, we 'present'—everything in the biology textbook, with a little less emphasis on the controversial parts." He spoke carefully and would say no more. Evolution was being taught, albeit grudgingly.
"The thing that is most difficult for us to accept here is that there are different religious beliefs," sighed Conner.
I asked him about a man, a lawyer, who had recently moved to Dayton from a northern city. When his child reported there were Bible readings in school, he pointed out the violation of federal law, and the school superintendent stopped the readings. An uproar ensued. Rumors flew that the school district was being sued; citizens suggested starting a legal defense fund. "He didn't understand the community," Conner said.
"Suppose you had taken the man aside beforehand," I said. "What advice would you have offered?"
Conner, a local, thought awhile. "I would have tried to alert him," he replied. "I'd have said: 'Look, do you want to cause your family trouble? This is a rural, conservative place, and very emotional about religion. Attack religion and the Crusades begin. But you need to follow your own convictions.'"
Dayton has endured 75 years of outsider scorn because of Scopes. If it circles the wagons against outsiders, it is not hard to see why. There's a sense here that people who have not walked in your shoes don't have a clue. Often, they don't.
On the way to interview Conner, I'd crossed an elevated walkway linking the gymnasium to the main building. Through the windows you can spot a thread of stream that spills down from the mountain and slips under the walkway. Quotes from people like Alexander Pope and Thomas Edison decorate the walls. They are inspirational, as befits an institution of learning, and there was one I particularly liked.
"It takes two to speak the truth,—one to speak, and another to hear."
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU