The Hidden Religious Tragedy of S-Town

religion church S-Town podcast

John, a 49-year-old antique clock restorer, tries his best to convince Tyler, a struggling, unmarried 20-something father, to come to church in rural Alabama. Nothing about that scene is unusual on the surface, but like most everything else on the popular podcast S-Town, there’s much more below the surface. There’s a hidden tragedy being exposed.

S-Town, a spin-off of Serial and This American Life, follows the life of John B. McLemore, an eccentric genius who feels trapped in Woodstock, Alabama, the small town in which he’s lived his entire life. Early in the seven-episode podcast, a twist sends listeners deep into the entangled and unraveling lives of the people around McLemore, especially Tyler Goodson.

For listeners familiar with Alabama, one of the biggest surprises may be how little religion appears in S-Town. According to Pew Research, Alabama is tied with Mississippi as the most religious state in America. Yet, outside of passing references and a discussion of a funeral service, religious faith is conspicuously absent from S-Town.

The “church” McLemore and Goodson frequent is the elder’s clock workshop. There, McLemore asks Goodson to give him repeated tattoos and body piercings while they talk about life and life after death.

That this pair gathered for these discussions in a church of their own making in the rural South is less surprising when you look at the research about who is attending religious services. Both McLemore and Goodson fit the profile of those who have left the church and whom the church has failed to serve.

John B. McLemore

Two aspects of McLemore’s life made it unlikely he would attend and find what he was looking for in one of the churches surrounding his Alabama town. He was an atheist and, according to information on S-Town, very likely mentally ill.

As an ardent atheist, McLemore was one of the growing number of religious nones in America. Those who select “none of the above” on religious questionnaires have grown to almost a quarter of Americans, according to Pew. Even in Alabama, 12 percent of residents are religiously unaffiliated.

But even if McLemore had shown up at a church, there’s a good chance he would not have found help dealing with his mental illness. Two-thirds of Protestant senior pastors say they seldom speak to their congregation about mental illness, according a LifeWay Research study. Yet, those with mental illness (59 percent) and their family members (65 percent) want churches to talk openly about the subject.

Only a quarter of churches (27 percent) have a plan to assist families with mental illness and even fewer (14 percent) have a counselor skilled in mental illness on staff or train leaders how to recognize mental illness (13 percent).

“People who live with mental illness, whether their own or someone else’s, need to break the silence. They need to speak and be heard in the church and elsewhere,” writes Amy Simpson, whose mom suffers from schizophrenia. “They need the church to break its own silence as well.”

As evidenced by the podcast, McLemore clearly needed people around him who could help him. While he brought people into his life and sought to help them, no one around McLemore on a regular basis was in any position to help him deal with his mental illness. Unfortunately, he wasn’t likely to find the help he needed in a traditional church and most likely neither would Tyler Goodson.

Tyler Goodson

While it may not be surprising that the religiously unaffiliated aren’t rushing to churches and pastors aren’t sure how to handle mental illness, some may not be aware the average unchurched individual looks increasingly like Tyler Goodson.

In a study of the unchurched, LifeWay Research found that 67 percent are white, 53 percent are male and 47 percent have a high school diploma or less—all of which describes Goodson.

It’s not that they don’t believe in God or prayer; they just don’t show up to church. The latest General Social Survey data shows self-identified lower class Americans are the most likely to say they know God exists, pray at least daily, and believe the Bible is the word of God. But they are also the most likely to say they never attend religious services.

A study led by W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, found at least monthly church attendance among whites with only a high school diploma fell from 50 percent in the 1970s to 37 percent in the 2000s. By contrast, college-educated whites only dropped five points—from 51 percent to 46 percent.

For Wilcox and others like Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, this is a troubling trend. As lower income and less educated Americans withdraw from churches, they also grew increasingly isolated from other institutions. “These trends add up to greater isolation of poor kids and that makes it harder,” said Putnam.

In discussing Putnam’s book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Wilcox writes: American children from better-educated and more affluent homes enjoy decent access to churches, families and schools, which lifts their odds of realizing the American Dream, even as kids from less-privileged homes are increasingly disconnected from these key institutions, making the American Dream that much more difficult for them to pursue.”

That lack of opportunity rings true for Goodson in S-Town. He grew up in a low-income home with an abusive father. The podcast describes Goodson as providing for his children through odd jobs often interrupted by legal problems and run-ins with the police. Research from Wilcox and others indicate involvement with a church or other local institution could provide a path to social improvement for those in Goodson’s position.

Where is First Baptist S-Town?

S-Town is something new, a genre-bending podcast—part murder mystery, true crime story, personal exploration and non-fiction audio novel. While many listeners can appreciate S-Town’s literary exploration of small town Southern life filled intriguing characters, American churches should take it as a sober reminder.

There are people like McLemore and Goodson who need help all around us. They aren’t finding it in the government or other social institutions, including the church. For all the calamities explored in the podcast, the absence of the church from the lives of John B. and Tyler is yet another tragedy unfolding in S-Town, Alabama and places like it across the country. How will the church respond?

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.