Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk, eds.  Religion and Public Life in the South: In the Evangelical Mode. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2005. 224 pages. ISBN 0759106355. Reviewed by Darren E. Grem, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Whether on enormous billboards or on modest church signs, public affirmations of faith, particularly conservative, evangelical faith, are a common and important part of the South's contemporary religious landscape.  No less could be said of the role of conservative evangelicalism in the region's public law and electoral politics.  Alcohol remains illegal in dozens of southern counties, and debate continues to rage over the proper role of creationism in publicly funded school systems.  Even congressional and presidential candidates often find their political futures hinging on the concerns of the region's politically inclined faithful.  Indeed, given evangelicalism's continuing presence and power in the South's public sphere, there seems little reason to doubt that the region is still firmly “in the evangelical mode.”

". . . Wilson and Silk's volume stays attentive to both the varieties of evangelicalism in the South and the varieties of non-evangelical experiences there."  


Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk's edited volume Religion and Public Life in the South both affirms this impression and complicates it.  As a part of the Religion by Region series, sponsored by Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, it aims to understand “how religion shapes, and is being shaped by, regional culture in America” (5).  In the South, as many scholars have pointed out, evangelicals have certainly shaped public life, often because they have tacitly or openly supported the economic, racial, and gendered values of the region's status quo.  But the region has also been home to other religious traditions, and Wilson and Silk's volume stays attentive to both the varieties of evangelicalism in the South and the varieties of non-evangelical experiences there.  This attention toward creating a balanced analysis of the region's religious cultures makes Religion and Public Life in the South a particularly effective and useful collection.

As Wilson notes in the collection's introductory essay, southerners have most often used religion to reinforce conservative values.  Two other essays in the volume discuss both past and present iterations of this historic mission.  Reiterating points from his Freedom's Coming, Paul Harvey notes that many white evangelicals have never been fully “at ease in Zion.” As a result, they have been continually involved in a public fight against a variety of perceived ills, whether abolitionism, racial equality, alcohol consumption, desegregation, or more recently, feminism and pluralism.  Agreeing with Harvey, Andrew Manis argues that many southerners “have enlisted in the culture wars with a rebel yell” (183).  Manis sees the blending of nationalism and evangelical conservatism as particularly consistent in the South's history, whether in bygone defenses of the Lost Cause and Jim Crow or in more recent brouhahas over the public display of the Confederate flag and the Ten Commandments.  Although there have been challengers to what Manis calls this “homogeneous civil religion of exclusion” – for instance, the civil rights movement and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition – he concludes that southern, conservative discontent remains a prevailing impulse in national and international policy-making (175).     

Lest they merely reinforce impressions that all religion in the South is white, patriarchal, and necessarily conservative, Wilson and Silk have included several essays about the religious experiences of women and African-Americans.  In her contribution, Cynthia Lynn Lyerly argues that southern churches have long been resistant to women in leadership, but strongly in favor of their participation in auxiliary roles.  Women thus have developed a “parallel church” in congregations across the region, one that is operated by women, for women.  Lyerly uses the Church of God in Christ's Church Mothers and the Southern Baptist Convention's Women's Missionary Union as examples of this “parallel church,” concluding that the service opportunities provided by these organizations have been a profound source of strength for women expected by regional standards to remain submissive.  As William E. Montgomery notes in his essay, similar strategies of negotiation can be observed among African-Americans as well.  Montgomery calls African-American Christianity a “semi-involuntary” institution, meaning that cultural expectations make religious affiliation, however minimal, a requirement.  Because it has been an involuntary institution, black Christianity's impact on black culture, community life, and political values has been significant.  Its importance in black history and in contemporary black life, however, has hardly led to a uniform system of belief or religious practice among the region's black population.  Moral conservatism, civic activism, social welfare, the prosperity gospel – all are part of the black religious world.     

Religion and Public Life in the South also has three other essays devoted to the remarkable variety of religious cultures and experiences that one can find from lower Mississippi to Florida to Appalachia.  For specialists, Ted Ownby offers perhaps the most informative piece in the volume, using data from the North American Religion Atlas (NARA) and American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) to look at the current state of religious affiliation in each southern state.  Conducted in 2000, the NARA counted adherents as those listed on the rolls of specific religious groups.  Conducted in 2001, the ARIS counted as adherents those who self-identified with a certain religious tradition.  From the NARA and ARIS, Ownby interpolates that “the statistics offer rich confirmation of the image of the South as the country's evangelical heartland” (39).  But large numbers of “unaffiliated,” as well as the strong presence of Catholics, Pentecostals, and non-Baptist Protestants, show that other groups seem to be reshaping the South's public character. 

For non-specialists, Samuel S. Hill's and Charles H. Lippy's essays will be of particular interest.  Both are written in an approachable style, and both make observations that the interested general reader will no doubt find surprising.  In the “peripheral South” of Appalachia, Hill finds a decidedly “non-public” religious culture.  Loyal to a “lingering Calvinism,” many Appalachians seem to Hill to practice a localist “ethic of personal righteousness and community uprightness” rather than the politically engaged religiosity of, say, the Religious Right (145).  In the peripheral state of Florida, Hill sees generalization about religious affiliation as difficult if not impossible.  Baptists are in shorter supply there than in other southern states and Catholicism has a dominant presence, especially in the lower half of the state.  Still, it is ripe ground for the Republican Party (but not quite the more extreme Religious Right), showing itself in recent years to be moderately conservative in its politics in general and strongly conservative on social issues that seem to threaten the fabric of religious and community life. 

Likewise attentive in the region's religious diversity, Lippy reviews the survival strategies of a number of minority religious groups, including but not limited to Catholics, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus.  Lippy argues that some have survived by withdrawing from the larger, public evangelical culture, choosing instead to maintain their own unique institutions (such as the Church of God's Lee University), practices (such as serpent-handling), or cultural sites (such as Hindu temples).  Others have preferred full engagement, whether through intermarriage or tacit approval of the “southern way of life.”   Regardless, as Lippy concludes, the continued presence of these minority groups and practices shows that “the South may still be the Bible Belt in the popular mind . . . [but] undercurrents of religious diversity have enhanced the influence of religion on the shared public life of those who live in the South” (139).    

Lippy's remarks not only summarize the crux of this volume's argument but also denote its value for specialist and non-specialist alike.  Like Donald Mathews and Beth Barton Schweiger's recently released collection of essays Religion in the American South, Wilson and Silk's compilation invites scholars to consider traditions other than the dominant evangelical establishment when writing about southern religion.  Those teaching undergraduate or graduate students will find the essays helpful, especially as introductions to the various concerns of scholars working in the field of southern religious studies.  Interested readers and non-specialists will undoubtedly discover that the essays are well-written, easy to read, and quite informative.  In short, Religion and Public Life in the South is a responsible treatment of the region's numerous religious communities, their public identity, and their influence in the regional and national culture.  

Darren E. Grem, University of Georgia


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