David Goldfield. Southern Histories: Public, Personal, and Sacred. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003. 123 pages. ISBN: 0820325619. Reviewed by Elna C. Green, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
This slim volume consists of three lectures given by David Goldfield as part of the Averitt Lecture Series at Georgia Southern University in 2002. The first, entitled "Whose Southern History Is It Anyway? Reconciling a Fractured Past," describes the culture wars whirling around the author's most recent book, Still Fighting the Civil War: Southern History and the American South (2002). The second chapter, "Faith of Our Fathers: Southern Religion in a Global Age," offers Goldfield's analysis of the possibilities for southern religion to soothe the region's culture wars. Chapter three, "The Uses of Southern History: A Personal Memoir," recounts Goldfield's activities as an expert witness in voting rights cases and death penalty cases. For readers of this journal, the first two chapters are likely to be of the most interest.
|"This contemporary minefield, where battles over Confederate flags and 'revisionist' history might intimidate the faint-hearted, is exactly the place where southern historians need to be."|
Goldfield's Still Fighting the Civil War put him on the front lines of the southern culture wars. Southern historians have been engaged on several fronts recently, such as in the 2003 controversy at the Museum of Mobile over a published review of the movie "Gods and Generals" [see: http://hnn.us/articles/1736.html] and in the attempt to block the nomination of Charles Pickering to a federal judicial seat [see: http://hnn.us/articles/1760.html]. This contemporary minefield, where battles over Confederate flags and "revisionist" history might intimidate the faint-hearted, is exactly the place where southern historians need to be. Goldfield gently chides his colleagues for not doing more to inform this public debate. "[I]n their writing they are doing so, but in getting those ideas to the general public, they are not" (p.70).
Goldfield offers a thoughtful, empathetic reading of neo-Confederates, recently identified in presidential politics as the "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." The neo-Confederates perceive their very identities to be under assault. "The society that emerged from the wreckage of war, the society predicated on white supremacy and patriarchy, is now slowly but surely dissolving, and some white southerners feel themselves in danger of dissolving with it. How did this come to be?" he asks (p.5). He answers that in the postbellum South, "group identity became indelibly a part of individual identity, blending until the two became indistinguishable" (p.7). "White southerners had come to define themselves, their religion, and their region by their past, and contrary perspectives threatened the community, for if their myth proved untrue, who, then, were they?" (p.20).
Goldfield's solution to this perceived threat is an inclusive history, or histories. "Embracing ambivalence" in history, he argues, will allow southerners to recognize that a given event has different meanings for different people. "If we acknowledge and refine each other's perspectives, we can create a new community instead of two separate and ultimately conflicting groups" (p.41). Neo-Confederates should "consider a different past that does honor to their individual ancestors but places the community they represented in a more realistic framework" (p.38).
Goldfield next turns to the role of religion in the southern culture wars. Protestantism was central to creating the New South, and by implication should be central in re-creating it today. "White southerners became acutely aware that they lived in a holy time, an era when rebuilding a community meant fulfilling a redemption" (p.44). But the South's "particularistic brand of American Protestantism" was one that "held no value in dissent, discussion, interpretation, for to question was to doubt, and to doubt was to profane both the memory of the war and the righteousness of the Lord. Religion became a hard thing for a people living in a hard environment" (p.46). "An evangelical history begot an evangelical religion. Both required orthodoxy and neither brooked dissent" (p.46). "Religion and culture were joined at the hip in the South and permeated both public and private lives and institutions. To deny one meant to deny both" (p.59).
That "hard" religion perceives itself under assault today. Religious pluralism, a product of recent changes in immigration patterns, has meant that southern school districts and other institutions have to confront challenges to traditional assumptions about public religious expression. Controversies over displays of the Ten Commandments demonstrate the degree to which "evangelicals feel under siege" and such monuments are "as much an expression of defiance as...of faith" (p.62). Unfortunately, Goldfield writes, "there are few countervailing institutions in southern society to take on the religious right" (p.70).
Goldfield then offers his solution to this religious conflict, in an all-too-brief conclusion. "What needs to occur in the South is a broad-based attempt to disconnect southern evangelical Protestantism from its culture.... For the problem is not religion any more than the problem is history" (p.70). He calls on ministers especially to speak out on behalf of religious diversity and tolerance. "There are enough examples in twentieth-century southern history of southern evangelical Protestantism as a positive force for change, tolerance, and improving the human condition to think that the current reaction is not the last theological word on the spiritual condition of southern society" (p.71).
This is a thoughtful little volume, densely packed with insights and observations. Although Goldfield himself has been the object of verbal attacks in the wake of his last book, he betrays no anger or bitterness. He speaks of his "antagonists" calmly. But this book is not likely to please his conservative critics, since his proposed solutions essentially ask them to compromise; they, not their opponents, should accept change and dissent. However, as he himself explains carefully, to those fighting for religious orthodoxy, "dissent is sin" (p.69). Conservatives are unlikely therefore to welcome his conclusions.
This comment does not suggest that the book is a wasted effort. Historians should read this, to remind themselves of their importance to contemporary public policy. All historians are in some part "public historians." Goldfield urges us to act the part.
Elna C. Green, Florida State University
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