Pastor Terry Jones is an obscure obscurant whose pratings once reached fewer people than most Facebook status updates. In a sane world, his name would have languished unheard by all but his family, friends and the few dozen yokels who attended his Dove World Outreach Centre church in Gainesville, Florida.
In the last few months, however, Jones has become one of the most famous preachers alive, the subject of demonstrations around the globe – some of them lethally violent – and condemnation from the planet’s highest offices. This week Jones was banned from the United Kingdom – a proposed speaking tour kiboshed by the Home Office on the grounds that Jones’ presence would be “not conducive to the public good”.
The ostensible reason for this opprobrium is Jones’ declaration last year that he intended to observe the anniversary of September 11, 2001, by burning a Koran. This was not, on its own merits, newsworthy: silly, unpleasant people say stupid things all the time and are ignored by CNN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera. In this instance, however, the world’s media and polity decided to turn Pastor Jones into a bogeyman. Though Jones’ opinions, in and of themselves, are no more interesting than the fulminations of the dishevelled gentleman shouting at bins in your shopping centre car park, his elevation to the status of global village idiot is instructive.
Jones owes his notoriety to two phenomena. One is the wretched deference still reflexively afforded anyone who claims to be speaking for God. The other is that there’s always an audience for anyone willing to fulfil a stereotype, and Jones does obligingly that for one of the last peoples it is socially acceptable to demonise: white folk from America’s deep south. Jones, indeed, could only be a more complete archetype of the redneck hayseed if he married his sister.
“I think that’s right,” says Professor William Link, of the history department of the University of Florida – based, like Pastor Jones’ church, in Gainesville, though attended by rather more people. “There is a longstanding otherness about the south that you see reflected in the media and culture, and he absolutely fed into that.”
As is usually the case, the view of the story from the eye of the media storm was all but unrecognisable to its subjects. Gainesville, Link notes, is a liberal college town that recently elected a gay mayor. Prior to the Terry Jones brouhaha, it was best known for giving the world singer-songwriter Tom Petty.
“It’s not like Jones even attracts support here,” says Link. “But he’s a great southern stereotype and that’s what the media latched onto.” Asked whether represented by such a grotesque hurts – or even affects – the region, Link suggests that they’re getting used to it. “My parents are both southerners,” laughs Link. “When I was growing up, they used to notice that all the villains on TV had southern accents.”