Baldwin and Wright: Fear in Religion

Upon reading Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain for this coming week of class and reflecting upon Wright, I would like to discuss the way each of the writer sees religion, specifically how they fear the institution of the Catholic Church. Both Bigger and John express fears of organized religion, albeit John’s fears are more explicitly stated. But each character associates religion with gender, which creates a fear within both characters over how they are able to effectively express their masculinity. But while Bigger associates religion with femininity in the form of his mother, John seems to associate it with masculinity in the form of his father, as he is a preacher who instills the fear of God into the hearts of his children on a daily basis.

Bigger sees access to religion as something that would make him more feminine and thus destroy his masculinity, which he views mainly as his capacity for violence. When the preacher comes to his jail cell and requests Bigger pray to God for his fate in the trial, Bigger refuses to do so, thinking that he must accept his death because he created this path for himself through his acts of violence. But I believe there is a deeper meaning to Bigger’s refusal to pray that stems from his fear of the women in his life. The main religious figure in his life is his mother, whom he does not feel comfortable around and refuses to be himself in front of. At one point (though I forget the exact page number), Bigger associates his mother’s devotion to God to Bessie’s alcoholism, showing that he believes religion to be a sign of weakness. He does not see religion as a path toward salvation, but as a crutch that can barely assist one in escaping their painful existence. Bigger’s fear of religion peaks during the trial, when he sees the burning cross outside the court being used by the Klan to intimidate him. This imagery of white people using the cross as a symbol of hate definitely ties Bigger’s fear of religion to whiteness, but I feel that his fear stems more from his hatred of women; he does not want to be “feminine” in the way he perceives the women around him like his mother, so he abandons religion.

John, however, sees religion as a much more masculine institution, as his father is a preacher. Additionally, he is constantly reminded by the fear of sin; people at his church and in his life frequently bring up the threat of eternal damnation. And it seems that the one practice John is most fearful of that will lead him to eternal damnation is premarital sex. So unlike Bigger, John embraces religion, but this embrace still leads him toward a path where he is afraid of femininity. But rather than being afraid of himself losing his masculinity in the face of a female figure, he is afraid of embracing it. So John and Bigger’s mutual fear of religion leads to opposite ends in the two boys. For Bigger, he embraces his masculinity, equating it to the sexual violence he exerts upon Bessie and Mary. For John, he is scared into embracing religion, and thus avoids confronting his sexuality in fear that he will face perdition in the afterlife.

I am not sure what to make of these two opposite takes of the combined role of religion and fear, but I thought it would be interesting to explore especially because the topic of fear came up a lot in the presentations last class. If anyone has any thoughts let me know, as I am still trying to piece this all together.

2 thoughts on “Baldwin and Wright: Fear in Religion”

  1. Ryan, this is a great post. I love your insights connecting fear, religion, and expression of gender & sexuality. You’re perceptive to note that Wright discusses fear in terms of femininity, while Baldwin addresses fear in terms of masculinity. I read it as two sides of the same coin. I suspect that part of the underlying fear has to do with how religion often polices “acceptable” gender expression and sexuality. Especially when we read these authors through a queer lens, the fear responses to religion—and to parents, given Christianity’s parental vocabulary for God—make a lot of sense. I agree that this will be a really interesting theme to explore further—thanks for your thoughts on this!

  2. I really appreciate the insight you provide into the associations of religion and gender and sexuality in these texts that I hadn’t previously considered. I thought it was significant that although Roy is not as dedicated in his faith, John’s dad seems to love and support him more than John who is more conforming to his father’s code of morality. I think the father’s support of Roy is a result of Roy presenting as more masculine and also being more aggressive towards white people where John is more sympathetic. In a way, John’s attempt to be religious for his father’s sake is almost futile if he can’t assert his manhood in a way that would impress his father.

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