Scholars examine modern religion's impact on Louisiana culture

Our Lady of Prompt Succor is the southern-most church on Bayou Lafourche, the closest house of worship to the Gulf of Mexico on this thin stretch of land in South Louisiana. The church's name refers to the Virgin Mary as a source of aid in times of great distress and it is no accident that it sits just inside the South Louisiana levee protection system, a spiritual bulwark that joins a structural one in guarding against the area's regular hurricanes.

Bayou Lafourche has long been examined by international geologists, engineers, economists and climatologists, and now, social scientists from LSU have joined in studying one of the most culturally rich – and threatened – parts of the world.

The relationship between residents and water is tightly bound on Bayou Lafourche, and hurricanes are a harrowing, but routine part of life. Most locals have earned their living on the water, either by fishing or working offshore and the threat of hurricanes is embedded in the culture; the collective memory is laden with storms of the past. When a new hurricane takes aim, many Catholics in the area repeat the prayer, "Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us."

Sometimes this recitation takes place within the walls of a church. More often, it is part of a personal ritual. A rough-hewn shrimp boat pilot might murmur it on one last trawl before hunkering down before the storm hits. A nervous young mother may whisper it while passing her shrine to the Madonna, a common garden element here. Prayers to Mary as Our Lady of Prompt Succor are not only offered before a hurricane, but during and after one as well.   

LSU Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Michael Pasquier wanted to know more about the role religion plays in organizing the lives of residents of one of the most culturally rich — and threatened — parts of the world. Hurricanes are just one challenge faced by the people of Bayou Lafourche, an isolated area settled by Acadians and other immigrant groups that lies far south of Baton Rouge and New Orleans and is disconnected from the better-known Acadiana region near Lafayette.

Bayou Lafourche is also in peril from coastal erosion and rising seas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the state has lost about 1,900 square miles of land since 1932 and this part of the state has felt it sharply. Land loss is palpable; even middle-aged residents can recall when tracts of land now under water were solid ground. Moreover, the local economy is inseparably linked to the sometimes volatile oil and gas industry. Residents experienced deep personal and economic losses after the 2012 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but they continue to see the industry as one of their greatest economic assets. 

Leeville Cemetery, situated next to Bayou Lafourche, was covered with cement to prevent graves from being washed away.

Bayou Lafourche and its environs have long been examined by international geologists, engineers, economists and climatologists. In recent years, this has reached fever pitch as Hurricanes, Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav and Isaac and the oil spill caused billions in physical damage and economic loss and accelerated coastal erosion. Pasquier was intrigued by how local religious practices interact with this thorny backdrop.

"These issues raise very existential questions for the people who call this place home," said Pasquier, author of "Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789-1870." "This is the job of the humanities: to put a human face on stories that are often monopolized by louder elements."
The study of religion has always formed an important part of the humanities, and many LSU College of Humanities & Social Sciences faculty from a variety of disciplines study religious beliefs and movements as well as religion's influence on society. Social scientists in the college as well have recently made the exploration of the influence of religion on individuals and society a major aspect of their research. Sociologists Matthew Lee and Troy Blanchard have found patterns between prevailing religious cultures and crime rates and mortality. And geriatric psychologist Katie Cherry is examining the role of both liturgical and non-liturgical worship among older residents after large-scale natural disasters. Their work is opening fresh territory in traditional scholarship. 

Mixed Blessings

Zack Godshall filming for the upcoming documentary “Water Like Stone,” which chronicles life in the community of Leeville, La., aboard the shrimp boat Tee Tim.

Pasquier wanted to know more about how religion and society on Bayou Lafourche have adjusted to the area's dramatic changes in physical landscape and to its ongoing environmental threats. Moreover, he wanted students to participate in the research. In his course, "Introduction to the Study of Religion," Pasquier formulated an oral history project that enabled students to learn more about "lived religion" in Bayou Lafourche by traveling to the area and conducting interviews with longtime residents. The purpose of the project was to examine what kinds of everyday beliefs and religious practices existed in the community and how they have evolved alongside environmental issues. He reached out to the nationally renowned T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History at LSU as a research partner.

While Pasquier instructed students on the region's religious, social and environmental history, T. Harry Williams Center director Jennifer Abraham Cramer ensured they understood the goals and principles of qualitative research. They learned interviewing protocol and proper recording techniques. Pairs of students were each assigned one of 20 lifelong residents who had been recruited with help from the Bayou Lafourche Folklife and Heritage Museum. Student interviewers asked their subjects questions that concentrated on two major themes: religion and the environment.

The responses they elicited opened a window into the highly personal role of religion in communities in peril. In one example, a resident discussed his memories as a child of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. As his family sheltered-in-place in their home, the subject stayed up all night listening to the pounding wind and rain, even throwing up in bed. But his fear rose dramatically when he saw the men in the house pray the rosary.

As part of his course, “Introduction to the Study of Religion,” Michael Pasquier, LSU assistant professor of religious studies, organized an oral history project with his students on the “lived religion” in Bayou Lafourche.

"When women pray, it's alright," the subject said. "When men pray, you know something's wrong … When my grandpa and the other men started praying, that was scary."

In another example, residents told students about family cemeteries that had been absorbed by the bayou as a result of rising sea level.

"Something like that gives new meaning to the term ‘final resting place' as we know it," said Pasquier.

The 20 interviews are housed at the T. Harry Williams Center and will be included in the LSU Libraries Special Collections, where they will be available to future researchers.

Pasquier continues to study the relationship between religion and the environment in Louisiana. Since completing the Bayou Lafourche Oral History Project, he has begun a documentary film with LSU Department of English Professional-in-Residence Zack Godshall on the community of Leeville, which sits in the crosshairs of coastal erosion. He has also begun a project with the LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio that records the personal stories and experiences of Bayou Lafourche residents through kiosks placed throughout the community. It is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Religion and Mortality, Segregation and Violence

For the Baby Boom generation of sociologists, religion was not considered a relevant research subject, but in the last few decades it has reemerged as a valuable element in examining social behavior. For example, notable research has taken place on the impact of personal religion on personal health and mortality.

Tee Tim shrimp boat captain Timmy Melancon is a lifelong resident of Leeville, La.

Expanding well beyond this framework, two LSU sociologists have conducted quantitative research projects that show how religion influences the structure of communities, including their rates of violence, racial segregation and mortality and how these rates vary according to differences in religious denominations. Matthew Lee, professor of Sociology and Associate Vice Chancellor in the Office of Research and Economic Development. and Associate Professor of Sociology Troy Blanchard have opened the discussion on the relationship between denominational patterns, or religious ecology, and social conditions in given communities.

"Religion is an important scientific aspect of a community," said Lee. "Every community in the U.S. has a church. We wanted to ask, ‘Does it matter?' and ‘If so, how?'"

In independent and joint research, Lee and Blanchard have found that patterns of religious organization suggest certain outcomes, not because of a failing of particular denominations or their practitioners but because of the way the denomination relates to the rest of society.

In a recent study on religion and population health, Blanchard and his colleagues examined how mortality rates in communities across the U.S. compare to the dominant religious cultures there. Their study refrained from examining religion as a monolith and used new theoretical and methodological approaches to show how variations within religious traditions can impact overall public health.

The documentary “Water Like Stone,” shows Leeville’s slow, losing battle against erosion while providing a historical testament to the strength of its people.

Blanchard used county-level data from the National Center for Health Statistics and church and church congregation data to look for patterns, and found a strong association between the presence of conservative Protestantism and higher mortality rates.

Blanchard believes this stems from a focus on "otherworldliness" in conservative Protestantism. Congregations tend to prioritize preparation for the afterlife, and their routines are heavily centered on activities within the church community rather the community at large. In contrast, mainline Protestantism and Catholicism feature more robust interactions with the larger society and its issues, shown over time in their establishment of social justice programs, nonprofit organizations and hospitals.
Lee's research opens new discussion about how religion impacts the well-documented tolerance for violence in the southern United States. Generations of sociologists have examined the roots of the South's tolerance for violence, but Lee moves the discussion forward by examining the influence of immigrant groups and their religious orientation. Specifically, he looks at the evolution of Scots-Irish immigrants, their historic tolerance for violence and their attraction to conservative evangelical groups established in the South at the time of their arrival. In these denominations, an eye-for-an-eye philosophy is a prevailing element. Rather than pin violence on poverty, as past bodies of research suggests, Lee opens the door for a nuanced study on how violence is impacted by the structures of society, including its dominant forms of religion. 

Lefort Cemetary, situated on the bank of Bayou Lafourche, has experienced significant erosion over the years. Today, it is part of a popular fishing area.

Katrina and Patterns of Worship

Cherry, a professor within the LSU Department of Psychology, was in the third and final year of a major research study on aging when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, devastating communities and causing the death of more than 1,800 people. A month later, Hurricane Rita made landfall, evacuating hundreds of additional residents and causing billions in additional damage. While her interview subjects lived outside of the primary disaster zone, they were well aware of the magnitude of the events. Many also experienced secondary impacts, such as the arrival of evacuating family members at their homes.

As her interviews for the Louisiana Healthy Aging Study continued during the storm's aftermath, Cherry noticed her subjects repeatedly mentioned their personal religious faith.

"I was intrigued. The material was incredibly rich and opened up so many more questions about how people were processing and coping," she said. "I thought, ‘I need to measure this and learn more about it.'"

Cherry, a quantitative psychologist, said this was new territory for her. She wanted to develop the right research tools for examining highly personal, faith-based interactions. She reached out to Loren D. Marks, Kathryn Norwood & Claude L. Fussell Alumni Association Departmental Professor in the LSU School of Social Work, for assistance in developing a methodology. The two are colleagues in the interdisciplinary LSU Life Course and Aging Center, where Cherry serves as director.

A shrine to the Virgin Mary sits abandoned along Louisiana Highway 1 near Leeville, La.

Together, they worked on a chapter on the impact of religion across different ages after catastrophe in the 2009 book, "Lifespan Perspectives on Natural Disasters: Coping with Katrina, Rita and Other Storms."

Cherry's interviews revealed a wealth of perspectives within older residents observing the storms of 2005. Many were undaunted in their faith and regular ritual of prayer and gratitude. Some focused on the role of the church in helping communities recover. A few clung to atheism.

Their responses help shape a more robust picture of the impact of recent natural disasters. The project has inspired Cherry to continue related research in areas of the state directly affected by the storms.
*This article first appeared in the LSU College of Humanities & Social Sciences Kaleidoscope magazine.