Review: Southern Civil Religions
Arthur Remillard. Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 248 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-3685-5.
Arthur Remillard argues that southerners wrestled over the meaning of the “good society,” appealing to transcendent conceptions of justice and truth as they tried to imagine what the South might become after its trials of slavery, war, and reconstruction. Despite its secular power, he argues, the white Protestant majority could not persuade, or force, their Jewish, Catholic, or African American neighbors to accept its monopoly on defining that good society. And neither could white males prevent the women of their own households from having visions of their own.
This is a refreshing perspective, more refreshing for showing—rather than merely asserting—the agency, resistance, and pride of those who could not control public discourse. Remillard’s book is richly populated by a cast of real people, stubbornly unique and stubbornly unwilling to fit into formulas. The author’s gift is to allow them to speak, to give us a chance to hear their own voices. He presents both “civil religion” and “the South” in quotation marks, acknowledging that those words do not mean all that they have seemed to mean in the past. He graciously thanks those who inspired him before he gently revises, expands, and perhaps even displaces their work. He shows that for all its apparent power—in historiography perhaps more than in its own time and place—the “cult” of the Lost Cause was often simply ignored by those who did not share in its allure.
The book focuses on one corner of the South—the wiregrass region of southern Georgia, northern Florida, and coastal Alabama. That corner embraced enough diversity and change to capture much of what was unfolding throughout the New South. It was a place crisscrossed by railroads and sprinkled with towns, firmly rooted in the slave South but pulled toward the power and money of the North, disdainful of Reconstruction but eager to set aside hard feelings for the reconciliation of white Americans. For Remillard, civil religion cannot be understood without a thorough grounding in civil life; here, the world of politics and economics serve not merely as background for the religious story, but constitute the charged and concrete world in which religion must live. Progress and reaction wrestle for people’s secular and sacred lives.
Remillard’s account of relations between blacks and whites is searing, filled with lynching and murder. He warns, however, that “the South’s moral and physical geography remained unsettled even though white authority was pervasive.” African American southerners defiantly imagined a “place for themselves built on a vision of the good society that emphasized freedom and equality” (77). The degree of uncertainty surrounding gender and religion was perhaps more surprising. Remillard evokes the subtle but persistent tensions surrounding ideas of moral progress and women’s place. “A devoted woman was both socially active and socially reticent,” he observes. “She was also a social progressive and an Old South romantic” (95). Remillard captures, too, the surprisingly large role played by Jews and Catholics in this part of the New South. Using civil religion as his focus, he shows that “some outsiders were not outsiders at all” (105). They made the case for their place in American society with “alternate vision of the good society using unique cultural resources” (169).
This portrayal of the New South is humane and affirming, clear-eyed and yet refusing cynicism. In Remillard’s hands, civil religion becomes not a smothering uniformity but a vocabulary in which people of all backgrounds, even in the repressive South, claimed a place for their vision of a just America. This book is itself an example of the benefits of a broader and more inclusive vision of what civil religion might mean.