Corrie E. Norman and Don S. Armentrout, eds., Religion in the Contemporary South: Changes, Continuities, and Contexts.  Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.  332 pp.  ISBN 1-57233-361-8.  Reviewed by David Goldfield, For the Journal of Southern Religion.

Few subjects are as timely as religion in the South. It has become the subject of pundits, bloggers, talk show hosts, and gurus of assorted political hues. Not surprisingly, the discussion has generated more heat than light. This is why this volume is welcome. It serves both as an introduction to religion in the contemporary South, told by a group of well-informed scholars, and as an analysis of the role of religion in an increasingly-diverse region. What took so long? Well, one reason is that this volume, originating from a 1999 conference at the University of the South, delayed publication for two years while its editors unsuccessfully sought out a scholar to write an essay on black churches in the South, surely an important topic and one that is missed in the anthology, but not an absence that detracts significantly from the value of the work.

The usual caveats about anthologies are that the essays do not hang together as a coherent whole and/or that they are of uneven quality. Neither is the case with this fine collection. With an introduction by the Godfather of southern religion, Samuel S. Hill, and the delightful and always pithy insights of Bill Leonard, the elegant writing of Don Mathews, and the simple erudition of Wayne Flynt, these contributions alone would be worth the price of admission. 

". . . the South, that bastion of evangelical Protestantism is now becoming more diverse."

While much writing on southern religion has been denominational or focused on the evangelical religious base, all writers in the volume approach the topic from a new perspective: the South, that bastion of evangelical Protestantism is now becoming more diverse. Jews and Catholics have been there from the beginning of European settlement in the South, though they are becoming more assertive as religious groups. Add Hindu and rapidly-growing Muslim populations and the landscape becomes even more complex. Even the old Baptist/Methodist/Presbyterian trinity has been challenged by a surging Pentecostalism. Still, this is the South, and traditional attitudes toward women and sexual orientation are perhaps more contentious and divisive here than they are in other parts of the country.

The contribution from Corrie E. Norman, Heather E. Barclay, and Nancy A. Hardesty on “Women and Religion in the South,” opens the anthology and it is a sprawling essay, well-connected to a historical context and focusing on the mainline evangelical Protestant denominations. Faith has more often trumped feminism in the South and the authors take a dim view of current trends, especially within the Southern Baptist Convention and the churches’ general neglect of domestic violence. As David G. Roebuck indicates in his essay on Pentecostalism, the limits on women’s ordination extend beyond the mainline denominations. Yet, Methodists and Presbyterians, and non-evangelical Episcopalians, not to mention Jews, have all expanded the roles and numbers of women clerics, sometimes in advance of their congregations.

Bill Leonard, who probably would have had a more prosperous career as a stand-up religious comic (though Methodists would have laughed much louder than his fellow- Baptists), chronicles the disintegration of the apparent southern Baptist consensus of 40 years ago. But, the Baptists, by definition, are congenitally a denomination of feisty independents so the current splintering with conservatives, moderates, and progressives going their separate ways is hardly unprecedented. It is also reflective of the fact, as Leonard notes, that southern Baptists are no longer “the center of gravity” (p. 86). The emergence of non-denominational mega-churches, Pentecostalism, and of faiths other than Protestant Christian challenges that dominance. Yet, as Wayne Flynt notes correctly in his contribution, denominationalism is still very relevant in the South and this, even amid the swirling changes, continues to set the South apart from a religious, and even from a cultural perspective. Charles Lippy makes a similar point that white evangelical Protestantism remains the public face of southern religion, though what is called “contemporary Christian worship,” a feel-good, non-denominational, non-symbolic service is making inroads in the South. This development is not surprising given the rapid influx of people from other parts of the country and the world as well as the establishment of new neighborhoods and communities on the raw edges of exurbia.

Among the most interesting contributions are those that relate to the religions outside the Protestant fold: Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. Mark Bauman demonstrates how, historically, Jews were of the South, but diverged from the norms of settlement, occupation, and political outlook. Even the Reformed movement in the South went counter to the evangelical trends of the late nineteenth century. But as Bauman notes, today southern Jewish communities experience the same fragmentation as the evangelical denominations. Bauman’s bibliography, by the way, is enormously helpful in demonstrating the rich and varied research in southern Jewish history and is a must for students beginning research in the field. Susan Ridgely Bales offers a similar overview of Roman Catholicism, though with less of a historical perspective. She is especially good on incorporating Latino influences into her narrative and the tensions deriving from those influences. Steven W. Ramey and Kathryn V. Johnson expound on the Hindu and Islamic experiences respectively. These essays are somewhat different from the others in the collection as they not only survey the varied practices and issues confronting these faiths, but they take time to inform the reader of basic theology. Given the widespread respect that religion holds in the region, in some instances it is easier to practice a minority religion. Even so, given the historic religious and ethnic conformity of the South, toleration may not translate to respect. 

The volume concludes with a section on the Episcopal Church, a nod to the conference’s sponsor, the University of the South. But rather than an obligatory add-on, the section provides a microcosm for the social and spiritual conflicts that are occurring throughout the religious South today. This is especially so with Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.’s essay comparing St. Stephen’s Church in Charleston’s historic Ansonborough neighborhood with a more radical and conservative (as Shattuck demonstrates that is not an oxymoronic statement) on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. The tension between feminism and faith is expertly illuminated by Jonathan Grieser, Corrie Norman, and Don S. Armentrout. And Donald G. Mathews’ excellent historic overview of change in the Episcopal church as well as its relationship to the prevailing evangelical denominations offers a fitting conclusion to the anthology.

For any course on the contemporary South, this anthology, balanced in its perspective, comprehensive in its coverage (with the exception noted above), and readable and even humorous at times, is essential reading. As befitting a book on southern religion, it is not only about religion, but about the South, its culture, and its history.

David Goldfield, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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