Paul Harvey. Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Xviii, 338 pp. ISBN: 0-8078-2901-3. Reviewed by Bland Whitley for the Journal of Southern Religion.
At what point does religious faith become politics by other means? When does its deployment in a political arena constitute a perversion of its core messages? When, alternatively, might its political deployment represent a logical extension of its mission? I cannot contend that these questions guided Paul Harvey’s fine history of the interplay between evangelical Christianity and the South’s white supremacist political culture, but they are worth keeping in mind when reading it. Harvey has set for himself an ambitious goal of integrating the ways that faith helped the majority of white evangelicals sustain Jim Crow with the ways that faith helped black evangelicals undermine the South’s discriminatory structure. Encompassing as it does so many varieties of evangelicalism, Harvey’s history shows a good deal of narrative strain, but ultimately it succeeds in offering trenchant analyses of a fascinating assortment of evangelical movements and individuals.
Harvey divides his account into five chapters, the first two of which take a chronological approach, rushing the reader through some one hundred years of southern religious history, while the last three take more thematic approaches. Throughout, Harvey foregrounds the three topics that bind his disparate stories together: theological racism, racial interchange, and Christian interracialism. While the first and last of these topics are fundamentally political in nature, covering efforts to justify Jim Crow as well as efforts to forge a more just society, the second signifies a realm of cultural practice.
Harvey begins with a discussion of why Reconstruction-era efforts to forge a biracial evangelical community foundered on the postbellum ideologies and realities of segregation. Biracial solutions to the spiritual and social problems confronting southerners after the Civil War never emerged as much of a possibility. The unwelcome paternalism of well-meaning whites (northern and southern), the racist resentment of defeated southern whites, and the desire among African Americans to take charge of their own religious institutions worked together to encourage the rapid consolidation of religious segregation. By the 1880s most southern white evangelicals had combined the overthrow of Reconstruction with a sense of spiritual triumphalism and thereby determined that God’s plan for the South was a segregated, unequal society. Unable to overturn this political reality, black evangelicals sought solace in the many enduring religious institutions they had created in the immediate postbellum era and in hesitant interrogations of their would-be Christian brothers in the white evangelical community.
|"Harvey has absorbed a tremendous amount of historical material and displays throughout a knack for selecting interesting examples."|
Harvey’s account of the peripatetic efforts of some southern evangelicals to challenge segregation is necessarily episodic, drawn from a wide range of secondary and primary sources. Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that Harvey cast as wide and as fine a scholarly net as possible in the hopes of catching every last example of Christian interracialism. Most of the profiles are evocative—Harvey has absorbed a tremendous amount of historical material and displays throughout a knack for selecting interesting examples. Most compelling is Harvey’s focus on women's groups, both black and white, who acted as a kind of vanguard in applying evangelical principles to improving society. While their male counterparts were largely paralyzed by a commitment to the institutional status quo and, in the case of whites, by their illiberal notions of race, women pioneered ecumenical and increasingly biracial efforts to infuse southern society with positive evangelical values. In the South the social gospel seems to have flourished only among women’s groups, who increasingly shifted away from evangelicalism’s traditional emphasis on individual amelioration and toward more sociological understandings of the problems they hoped to solve.
The third chapter centers on the expressive styles of the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. What affect, Harvey asks, did the biracial cultural borrowing, which characterized holiness adherents, have on the culture of segregation? To his credit he does not assume that cultural biracialism necessarily signaled a rejection of the prevailing social structure. Depending on the circumstance, the explosive worship styles of the movement could subvert, reinforce, or parody segregation, sometimes simultaneously. Perhaps, Harvey suggests, the most that can be said definitively about the evangelical theater of the movement was that it provided a cultural space where blacks and whites could mingle and learn from each other, if only briefly. Even after Holiness and Pentecostal denominations increasingly hardened behind racial lines, the cultural forms they continued to create and that became increasingly prominent in the wider regional culture encouraged interracial sharing. In making this case, Harvey synthesizes a wide range of material on southern music, providing links between early Pentecostal services and the biracial creativity of artists such as Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.
What impact did the racial interchange at the heart of southern religious folk culture and its emergence into the wider American popular culture ultimately have on Jim Crow as a social system? One might expect Harvey to posit his analysis of racial interchange as a narrative bridge between the hardened racial lines and halting efforts to soften such lines on one side and the civil rights movement on the other side. He offers no such connection, however. His chapter on the movement bears few traces of the previous cultural analysis. Instead, he offers an account that identifies evangelical faith as the glue of the movement, which at one point he characterizes as a kind of “religious crusade” centered on “Christian interracialism” (171-72). Using a similar structure to that of chapter 2, Harvey explores a wide range of figures from the movement and their relationships with evangelical faith.
Harvey brings his account up to the present in his last chapter, an incisive account of the growth of what is now known as the Christian right. The collapse of Biblical defenses of segregation in the face of the “moral force of the civil rights movement” (221) was not altogether surprising. Although less than energetic in their opposition to racism, white denominational leaders largely assented to a new ethical and moral standard for race relations in the South. White evangelicals disappointed by their leaders’ capitulation to liberalism did not attempt to sustain the “folk theology of Christian racism,” but they did draw a harder line against other manifestations of liberal belief. Harvey’s deft analysis shows how the new breed of conservative Christian activists shifted the traditionalist-modernist debate from the terrain of race to that of gender, where it remains to this day.
One can only marvel at the sheer volume of material, both secondary and primary, that Harvey has synthesized. The institutional growth of African-American denominations, the religious justification of white supremacy, black folk theology, the emergence of the Holiness-Pentecostal movement, fundamentalism, the ecumenical social gospel movement, and, of course, civil rights are just some of the many themes that Harvey explores. Evocative profiles and trenchant analyses are laced throughout the book, which continues his laudable project of discussing southern evangelical faith as a biracial cultural phenomenon.
Still, readers may end up thirsting for more explicit arguments. Freedom’s Coming is full of themes but lacks an overarching theme (other than the loose tie of biracialism). Given the wide varieties of southern evangelicalism, perhaps this authorial strategy was wise—certainly making narrative sense of a faith tradition that can sustain the most retrograde and violent social practices while also promoting spiritual and at times political egalitarianism poses extraordinary difficulties. Yet too often the work seems like a collection of snippets, almost all interesting and important but tied together only by their shared evangelical character. This tendency is most pronounced in the chapter on the civil rights movement. Harvey succeeds in showing how faith infused the beliefs and actions of participants in the movement, but he makes no effort to assess evangelicalism’s relative importance. It is one thing to point selectively to religion’s role in the individual cases that fill the book’s portrait, yet another thing to use such cases as a collective indication of religion’s centrality to the movement. Without a more explicit engagement with other aspects of the movement (political liberalism, economic progressivism, and popular culture come to mind), which might have allowed some tentative assessments of religion’s relative significance, the chapter’s argument might uncharitably be phrased, “evangelical faith was important to many people involved in the civil rights movement.” Too much of the work as a whole shares this tendency. It remains a mystery, at least in this reviewer's mind, what might connect the cultural biracialism inherent to the Holiness-Pentecostal movement with the social gospel liberalism that provided much of the impetus for overturning the region's white supremacist political culture. Why have the most culturally radical (and in many respects popular) modes of religious expression generally been attached to other-worldly, pre-millennial beliefs? Why have social gospelers embraced a clinical outlook drained of all religious fervor and vulnerable to attacks from religious traditionalists? The civil rights movement bridged this gap more successfully than most efforts to improve the region, but it is less than clear that such a link was central to the movement.
Questions such as these arise throughout the book. Lest I sound overly critical and unappreciative, I want to emphasize that Freedom's Coming demands a close reading from anyone interested in southern and American history. Not only will students gain exposure to the rich and varied history of southern evangelical religion and its central place in the culture of the region, but they will undoubtedly form questions out of the material. Harvey’s reluctance to connect dots may at times be frustrating, but his analyses and profiles should engender many fruitful discussions. By offering so comprehensive an account of evangelical faith and its cultural and political interaction with the problem of racism, Harvey makes it impossible for scholars of the South to ignore religion. It is an achievement that all should cheer.
Bland Whitley, Library of Virginia
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