We spent two weeks over Easter in North Carolina, visiting our very own US outpost of the Scottish diaspora. We were in the Bible Belt and there were churches everywhere: Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and other overwhelmingly Protestant denominations. Most were large and modern with big car parks. On Easter Sunday we passed a huge Jehovah's Witnesses' Kingdom Hall. There wasn't a spare space to be seen in the equally huge car park.
Many of the churches put up almost full-sized wooden crosses in front of their buildings. They all have wayside pulpits and while we were there, they were spelling out the Easter message: 'Hallelujah! He is Risen!'; 'The Tomb is Empty! Easter Blessings'; 'Worship with Us. Come and Feel Jesus's Pain'. My favourite was the uncompromising, 'God Loves You Whether You Like it or Not'.
It's not only the churches. Following a police car, I spotted the words on the bumper: 'In God We Trust'. Can't imagine seeing that on a Police Scotland vehicle. Individuals state their Christian belief with a placard in the front yard. 'Thank you Jesus'. We saw hundreds of those. Sometimes they're next to the American flag, although there were fewer of those than I expected.
A lapsed Presbyterian myself, I'm not mocking any of this. It occurs to me that many people left Europe in the past in search of religious freedom. They have it here and they express it. There seems too to be a lot of practical Christianity. The local papers and the church billboards offer free meals before the services, activities for children, meet-ups for senior citizens, bring-and-buy sales to help support refugees of different faiths.
In Mooresville, whose old downtown looks exactly as I've always imagined Main Street, USA, we went into a cafe for a lunchtime snack and found ourselves in a veterans' club. Maps, flags, uniforms and memorabilia around the walls told stories from the revolutionary war through the Korean – the forgotten war – up to the most recent conflicts.
Half-a-dozen 60-something men sat around playing guitars, a mixture of country music and Beatles songs, ending with George Harrison's 'Here Comes the Sun'. I told one man, whose US cavalry-style hat proclaimed him to be a Vietnam vet, that I had enjoyed the music. He told me they played in the cafe every Saturday morning 'to give something back to the Lord'. Lots of folks don't often get the chance to hear live music and that's what he and his band can contribute.
On our side of the Atlantic, we tend to associate this brand of religion with social and political conservatism, often in its most extreme incarnations. Clearly that exists but I formed a much more nuanced view by being there even for a short time. In the local Salisbury Post, I read that the John Calvin Presbyterian Church organised a passover seder celebration, coinciding with Maundy Thursday, with the aim of demonstrating the shared spiritual heritage of Christians and Jews.
In the Charlotte Observer, which has a page for issues of faith, I read about Pastor John Pavlovitz. The paper describes him as 'no stranger to controversy'. The pastor reckons it's time people stopped calling Donald Trump a Christian, as the new president's track record and pronouncements do not demonstrate Christian virtues. Reverend Pavlovitz also has a go at Americans who want only a white America and at 'religious fundamentalists... parsing out Bible verses to condemn the LGBTQ community, Muslims, entertainers, atheists [and] Democrats.'
In the letters page of the Salisbury Post, several outraged letters manifest anger and embarrassment over the moves by some North Carolina politicians to make same-sex marriage illegal. Although that bill is now dead, people are concerned that it and the controversial bathroom bill, requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms of their birth gender, make the state look backward. One correspondent comments that the Bible tells us to love our neighbour, asks how same-sex marriage harms anyone, and suggests that North Carolina has more pressing problems to deal with. Another asks about extending Medicaid, improving schools and infrastructure and 'making laws that actually help people'.
Not everyone here shares the same religious views. Some individuals rolled their eyes when I mentioned the 'Thank you Jesus' placards. Yet I'm beginning to understand what might lie behind the belief so many here seem to have – that God will come through for you eventually. In a country where you pass beautiful houses one moment and dilapidated trailer parks the next, Easter is a new beginning and the chance to start afresh. That fits in perfectly with the American Dream.