What sorts of things leap to mind when you hear this term? Warm weather? Moonshine? Ted Turner? Those good ol' boys from Hazzard County? Home? The inexplicably popular Trace Adkins single "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk?"

I'm willing to bet that for the majority of Bowdoin students, mention of the South evokes a hodgepodge of interrelated ideas: Red states, religious yahoos, "values" voters, country bumpkins carousing around in pickup flatbeds with their shotguns and smell hounds, stopping periodically to participate in a hootenanny and/or elect Bush.

These are the sorts of preconceptions that I packed along with my toothbrush, clothes, and various overdue readings as I prepared to embark on a week-long sojourn to the heart of Dixie with 11 of my classmates.

I had very little first-hand experience with Southern people and Southern culture going into the trip, which, in retrospect, might seem surprising given how expert I presumed to be while criticizing both during the 2004 election. The only times I had spent as long as a week in the South were visiting my grandparents in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and vacationing with my family at Disney World. The former is a retirement community with a ratio of approximately 1.7 golf courses per resident, and the latter is a magical kingdom purportedly ruled by a giant cartoon mouse. Needless to say, neither is an accurate sample of Southern mythos.

The destination of this spring's trip, however, was Pontotoc, Mississippi, a rural town characterized by its sprawling flatlands and ubiquitous Baptist churches and auto body shops. We were to spend our days building a house for Habitat for Humanity (HFH) and our nights at By Faith Baptist church. Members of By Faith and other local congregations were to provide us with food and company.

It became apparent almost immediately that we were in a different world. In her introductory remarks, Barbara Carter, our host, spoke extensively about God's role in guiding her work as the Pontotoc County HFH coordinator. Wayne Carter, Barbara's husband, attempted to make small talk before dinner by asking what church we belonged to back home.

Wayne also mentioned that By Faith formed as a result of a schism within a different congregation over whether or not blacks should be allowed to play in church softball games. Yikes.

A member of our group told Barbara that he was majoring in Gender and Women's Studies, rendering her utterly nonplussed. We decided later that she probably thought he was trying to be clever by implying that he makes a lecherous habit of "studying" members of the opposite sex.

Before we sat down for our first meal, Barbara asked that we hold hands, bow our heads and join her in a blessing. Amenable but self-conscious, we followed these guidelines, trying to accommodate our hosts' custom (which to us was either rusty or altogether foreign). The next day, our hosts asked for a volunteer from our group to lead the morning prayer. This caused a reaction roughly akin to Barbara's faltering attempt to process women's studies as a field of collegiate study.

We soon realized that prayer preceded and/or followed most daily activities.

Adjusting to the religiosity of our hosts was probably the most challenging aspect of the trip that didn't involve clinging to the edge of an unfinished roof. Tucked away in America's upper right-hand cupboard, our minds marinating in progressive social attitudes and secular humanist theories, most of us had grown condescending (or at least skeptical) toward doctrinal religion.

The name of our host church, By Faith, came from the New Testament axiom, "We walk by faith, and not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7)?a doctrine that is absolutely antithetical to our academic tendency to buttress belief with empirical truths, not religious superstitions.

We worked with several other volunteers at the HFH site, all of them at least three times our ages. The man in charge was a 70-odd-year-old Catholic brother named Joe, who had taken a vow of poverty and had been building houses for HFH since before we were born.

Brother Joe was a mild and focused man, but, most notably, he was fearless. While the rest of us clung for dear life to the roof trusses, he could be found dangling precipitously over the edge of the roof, casually nailing in perimeter beams, a sort of courage born either from experience, faith, or lunacy?perhaps all three.

Our other mentor was Bill, a retired Air Force pilot, who was back building after having six cancerous tumors removed from his bladder. Bill had about four zingers in his repertoire, which he issued in a steady cycle throughout the day to keep us on our toes.

"You got a mind like an old steel trap," he would jibe as I failed repeatedly to operate a circular saw. "Rusted shut!"

Brothers Joe and Bill were both pious men who lived their lives simply, though they were by no means simple. Bill was a history buff who would regale us with facts and stories about the European monarchies and the Civil War in between swings of his hammer. One day, during a lunch break, I sat in on a conversation between Brother Joe and Bill about U.S. foreign policy, in which they discussed current attempts to nation-build and mediate foreign conflicts in an historical context.

I was so intimidated by their insightfulness that I didn't open my mouth once. Anyone who knows me will testify that this usually takes a gag and several liters of tranquilizer.

I had approached this cultural immersion with a certain mental portrait of the rural South: pastoral, yes; charming, certainly; but so too a bastion of ignorance. It didn't take long for me to realize that I was the ignorant one.

Academia's ethereal castles provide a good tactical firing position from which to snipe at rural Southern culture. It is easy to read its simplicity as narrowness and its piousness as ignorance. But this sort of scrutiny can be, to an extent, hypocritical. As cynical as many of us presume to be about doctrinal faith, we too are devout to a religious order: the Church of Academic Liberalism.

Ours is not all that different from any other church. Books of literature, science, and theory are our scripture. Our professors, charged with helping us understand and interpret these sacred texts, are our ministers. Our classrooms are our church halls. If the clergy/faculty does its job right, we leave church/class each day invigorated, feeling as though the world makes a little more sense.

Our faith in reason is no less fervent or absolute than a Baptist's faith in God. Our arguments over what line of reason is most consistent with the truth resemble arguments among the faithful over what conception of God and what mode of observance is the correct one.

Please do not misconstrue this as an indictment of academic liberalism, or for that matter, an endorsement of doctrinal religion. For my part, I am often disappointed by how irresponsibly some religious zealots wield their piety, and I am disgusted by the way certain institutional ideologues exploit people's love of God to propagate hatred and fear.

But zealotry in academic liberalism can be just as insidious. It is easy to react cynically toward the religiosity of folks like Barbara, Wayne, and Brothers Joe and Bill. You could claim that they just use it to legitimize their conservative social "values." You could write it off as stubbornness; unwillingness to embrace modern scientific enlightenment because they don't have the time or patience to revise their worldviews. You could treat it as mere idiocy.

None of these analyses, however, account for the possibility of pure faith, unadulterated by political agendas and cognitive incapacities.

At lunch one day at a Methodist church, we saw a woman nearly break down while speaking about the power of Jesus's love?how it was more powerful than genocide, terrorism, or any other earthly evils.

This wasn't Jerry Falwell sounding off on the virulent influence of homosexual culture or Pat Robertson accusing the feminist movement of being a front for "witchcraft;" this was positively moving stuff?heartfelt, loving, and pure.

Though she preached a worldview that was, perhaps, a tad simplistic to set my mind?and maybe yours?at peace, her concepts seemed to make a lot more sense in the context of a rural Mississippi town than they might in a bustling Northern metropolis.

The Dalai Lama once said, "Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace." Any system of belief, be it theistic or agnostic, is vulnerable to sanctimony. Any cultural community, be it in southern Maine or northern Mississippi, is vulnerable to insularity. When these toxins prevail, political acrimony takes hold, respect is abandoned, and everyone's minds become, as Bill said, like old steel traps: rusted shut.