Review: The Secular Spectacle
Chad E. Seales. The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-986028-9.
The Southern Spectacle opens with the enticing visual claim that “Southern Secularism is a greasy pig.” Chad Seales attempts to catch this greasy pig to illuminate the shifting and overlapping territories of movement and migration within the public spaces of a specific locale. While Seales notes that “the subject is elusive, and easily slips the grasp,” he corrals it enough to examine the historical arch of boundary contestation and creation of civil society in an industrial town (1). Siler City, North Carolina is effectively a microcosm in which the interplay between private and public contests of morality over sex, race, religion, and secularism become visible.
Seales crafts a vivid and lively narrative from historical documents, ethnography, and close attention to theorization. From these different sites, Seales claims that, “Siler City residents participated in performances of religion and projects of secularism; their participation revealed social interests as it displayed social status, and the relationship between their performances of religion and their projects of secularism changed over time” (10). His argument combines recent popular works on secularism with spatial theories to position the categories of religious and secular in a spatial relationship that highlights how these classifications are mutually defined and performed with and against one another in a particular place. From this invaluable perspective, he highlights performances of power through religion and secularism.
The book is organized roughly chronologically, but it moves thematically to outline the contours of southern secularism alongside the social patterns of Protestant belief and religious language that arose within and across local neighborhoods.
From the engaging historiographical introduction, Seales drops the reader into “shifting territory” on the streets of historic Siler City. Chapter One, “Industry,” traces the interplay between southern regionalism, secularism, and industry around the Reconstruction era. Seales introduces Siler City as a rapidly growing area that was both connected to, yet “relatively unaffected” by, Reconstruction (25). Racial tensions often manifested in the shared industrial spaces of the city. Seales argues that religion became a key and powerful marker for white control of an area increasingly defined by “smokestacks and steeples.” Chapter Two, “Nationalism,” highlights this tension in public performances of Fourth of July parades. These parades highlight how white residents of the city sanctified memories of the Old South, redeemed southern conceptions of religious sacrifice, and then projected them as a form of secular American patriotism. Seales points to white performances, done in “Black Face” as late as the 1950s, to highlight how references to a divine racial order were proclaimed without the direction assertion of religion.
Chapters Three and Four are informed by these theoretical and historical backgrounds and move the book into an examination of the dissolving of, and disillusion with, elite whites’ visions of southern progressivism. Seales argues that in the early twentieth century, “elite whites cultivated civility as an institutional mechanism of southern secularism, defining it in opposition to the religious rite of mob lynching” (68). This mode of creating secularism, especially at City Hall and the County Courtroom, allowed Siler City to connect its version of progressivism to regional and national trends. In marking lynching as a “primitive religious rite,” civil leaders “leveraged” the category of civility to enforce a religiously justified racial order (86). Chapter Four, “Privatization,” again highlights this stark racial divide by showing how in the 1970s, the Fourth of July parade moved from the streets of the city to the backyard of Tommy Emerson. In 2006, Seales attended this picnic with his wife Emily. Aided by interviews with residents, he traces out an existing form of “de facto desegregation” in which the discontinued parades are remembered as having “just stopped” instead of ending because of desegregation. While desegregation threatened the power of white masculine control over public spaces, race, and gender, privatization cultivated a new form of secular power. Seales concludes that in moving to a backyard, this new private affair helps retain the social power of religion “for a select public” (113).
The final chapter, “Migration,” brings Seales’s narrative through the 1990s and early 2000s. This chapter moves back to the public spaces of City Hall, the Courthouse, and public schools, as well as to new Catholic churches constructed by Latino migrants. It weaves together the public Good Friday performances of the imagined (by white residents) homogenous Latino residents, the working conditions surrounding the “industrial machine,” and the shifting, contested, Protestant landscape. A visit by former Klansman and Louisiana State Legislator David Duke in February 2000 highlights a transformative moment in the performance of southern secularism.
This book makes important connections between gendered white spatial and moral power and the numerous challenges of racial segregation. Seales highlights how dreams of southern progressivism fostered a secular platform that masked, “racial harmony as an eternal moment” (154). This excellent book will be of interest to scholars of southern migration, religion, and the formation of the secular. Seales concludes, “In the early twentieth century, southern secularism was a greasy pig. A century later, it is a vehicle of forgetfulness” (157). The Secular Spectacle is a welcome addition to the scholarship on secularism, and Seales offers deeper reflection and analysis of its particularities in the South.