I teach at a Catholic school, so maybe this is why I want to begin with a confession.

I am not a southerner. I am a Pennsylvanian by birth, the son of New England Yankees with nary a sliver of southern shade in my family tree. Sweet tea makes me gag, even worse than boiled peanuts do. And if given the option between North Carolina and Texas barbeque, I wouldn’t have an opinion either way. It’s all just one, big bundle of cholesterol to me.

If all of this wasn’t enough, I hadn’t even heard of Charles Reagan Wilson’s Baptized in Blood until my third year of graduate school at Florida State University. I was enrolled in Amy Koehlinger’s seminar on religion and social change. If my memory is correct, Kelly Baker was assigned to begin the class with a general overview of the book. My job was to distill her insights into a series of conversation points. That’s about all that I can recall from that day. I do know that after that class ended, I had no intention to ever open that book again.

But then the next semester started. I was nearly finished with my course work and had planned to write a dissertation that built upon an essay that I wrote on the FSU mascot controversy.1 I pitched this to my advisor, John Corrigan, who expressed a valid concern that such a project on its own might not fly in the job market. He wisely suggested that I gain a secondary specialty in something “more conventional.”

I took his advice (always a good idea), and promptly located the path of least resistance. Corrigan was then the editor of the Journal of Southern Religion, and as his graduate assistant, I had helped with the book reviews. This gave me a vague sense of the emerging literature in the field (I knew, for example, that Paul Harvey wasn’t just a folksy radio personality). Also, my two closest friends—Mike Pasquier and Lee Willis—both had enduring interests in the South. So I had two friendships to exploit and test the limits of. Finally, and perhaps most pragmatically, the Florida state archives were just up the road, well within walking distance.

With expediency guiding every decision to this point, I set forth hoping to get a quick journal article out of all of this. Then, during my first trip to the archives, I came upon a collection of papers belonging to a Methodist minister, Alfred L. Woodward. A veteran of the Civil War, Woodward worked on the railroads before becoming a well-known preacher in north Florida. He was also an author, writing a regular column in a Tallahassee newspaper. As I sifted through the folders, I sometimes perceived Woodward as an ardent Lost Causer, someone who could have easily been featured in Baptized in Blood. And yet elsewhere, Woodward positioned himself as a prototypical New South progressive, a man of education and refinement who idealized the railways and championed an industrial economy. In these settings, I could see Woodward matching the description of an urbane ministry chronicled in Beth Barton Schweiger’s Gospel Working Up.2

By the end of the semester, I had written a clumsy essay that attempted to capture this tension. It was coherent enough that Corrigan suggested that I develop it for my dissertation. This would have been unthinkable a few months prior. But in that moment, even before my advisor had finished his sentence, I was in full agreement. I didn’t know much about the New South era, but that’s not what caught my interest. After all, I did not see Reverend Woodward’s writings as religious because he was a Methodist. I saw instead a person who creatively wove religious words and imagery into the fabric of everyday events, places, and behaviors. Yes, the Lost Cause was part of his rhetoric. But I sensed that there were more chapters to his story and to the story of the New South more generally.

To tell this story, though, I had to find more sources. So I hit the road with my tent and a slender graduate student budget, traveling to archives and sleeping in campgrounds in north Florida, south Georgia, and south Alabama—a region that I would later call (at the prompting of Charles Reagan Wilson, who read multiple versions of the manuscript) the “Wiregrass Gulf South.”

I quickly discovered that the archivist is the historian’s best friend. At the University of West Florida, Dean DeBolt alerted me to a rich collection of letters sent to Sidney Catts, Florida’s governor from 1917 to 1921. This was a recent acquisition by DeBolt, so Wayne Flynt hadn’t seen them when he wrote a biography of the “cracker messiah.”3 I spent most of my time looking at letters from when Catts was campaigning for governor. A former Baptist minister and political neophyte, Catts made anti-Catholicism a central plank on his platform. Reading letters from his supporters was like lurking in the comments section of an online news story. Both are venues for the unvarnished opinions of a public that can be even more extreme than those who they support. In contrast, while doing research in Mobile, a diocesan archivist alerted me to the letters of Bishop Edward E. Allen. These correspondences revealed an increasing sense of alarm and unease among Alabama’s Catholics, as Catts’s ilk gained traction in the state. The concern skyrocketed in 1921 with the murder of Father James E. Coyle, and then burst through the stratosphere during the trial and release of his murderer.4

As valuable as archivists were in my research, I was also the beneficiary of dumb luck. In Albany, Georgia, I happened to meet descendants of Samuel Farkas, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary who arrived in town after the Civil War. With limited resources, Farkas launched a mule-trading business and, within ten years, rose to become a distinguished businessman and property owner. By the time he died in 1914, he collected rent from approximately 400 people. He also left behind glorious legends, including a classic circus-act-gone-awry story. When a circus lion refused to release its trainer’s head, the ringmaster begged anyone with a gun to shoot the lion. Sitting in the crowd, Farkas didn’t have a gun. But he did carry a cane, which he promptly jammed down the lion’s throat to save the day.

What I didn’t hear from Farkas’s descendants, nor from the archival records, were stories of bigotry and anti-Semitism. I would encounter a similar conspicuous silence when I wandered into the municipal archives of Mobile and found a treasury of scrapbooks from Leon Schwarz. During the early and mid-twentieth century, Schwarz was known among Mobile’s elite as a soldier, fraternal “joiner,” businessperson, politician, and member of the Reform synagogue. In 1929, Schwarz was elected as the mayor of Mobile. But he was not the first Jewish mayor of the city. Lazarus Schwarz (no relation) had won that office in 1912, and was equally respected throughout the city.

Do I think that anti-Semitism was a problem for these and other Jews of the era? Absolutely. As Louis Schmier has explained, the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank “hovered like a foreboding raven about the heads of Jews, evoking fear and insecurity.”5 Still, I found southern white Protestants expressing respect and admiration for their Jewish counterparts, commenting favorably on their charitable deeds, business acumen, and commitment to the Old Testament. Sidney Catts was one such person. Catts called Leo Frank’s principal agitator Tom Watson “the great Apostle of Americanism”; and the Georgian likewise labeled Catts a “friend and champion” of the white South. On matters of religious prejudice, the two clearly found common ground in their anti-Catholicism. But not anti-Semitism. When rumors of Catts’s anti-Semitism circulated during the governor’s tenure, he moved quickly to reject the accusation. Catts would also write an enthusiastic letter of support for one of his Jewish friends who had applied to the Judge Advocate General’s Department during the Great War.

As the archival visits continued, my research on Catholics and Jews combined with a scattered batch of sources on race, gender, industry, and memory. It seemed that no matter what I found—whether it was the origins of the Florida Chautauqua, or the unsubstantiated rumors of African Americans meeting and planning the overthrow of the white South—I detected the traces of religious activity.6 Consequently, when I finally began writing, I had no shortage of good stories to tell. What I lacked, though, was a golden thread to hold them all together, an idea that would allow me to say something about all of this.

So I wrote, hoping that I would find the language to capture the ideas rumbling around in my brain. I even kept a “Dissertation Diary.” I recently revisited this diary, only to find a series of informal, unhinged summaries characterized only by an aimless search for an adequate narrative architecture.

One entry stood out, though. In this definitive statement, I proclaimed, “I am NOT going to use civil religion!”

Yes, Charles Reagan Wilson used this category to translate the religious dimensions of the Lost Cause. And yes, I wanted my study to build upon this classic work. But my graduate student friends and I laughed about civil religion as if it were a hair band from the 1980s. Civil religion was passé—a relic from a bygone era that just needed to be shelved in a museum, or, better yet, euthanized out of compassion for this aged and frail idea.

And yet, my crisis of clarity refused to resolve itself…until I stumbled upon a book review in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. “Here is a very rare bird indeed,” Ira Chernus said of Richard Hughes’s Myths Americans Live By, “a new book on U.S. civil religion, written by a credentialed scholar in the academic study of religion. People still write about U.S. civil religion. But the academic study of religion largely abandoned this subject years ago, and with good reason. It had become something of a prison.”

At this point, I was in complete agreement. My contention that civil religion had seen its day was unambiguously confirmed. But as the review continued, I saw Chernus—perhaps unintentionally—leave a door open. “We need studies of civil religion that claim no supposed consensus but allow ‘us’ to speak in all our diversity,” he announced. “Perhaps we must study only civil religions, in the plural. Or, if in the singular, we need to see civil religion as a broad, dynamic field of contending forces rather than an imagined unified tradition.”

With that, the scales fell from my eyes.

Soon I had discovered that a small but committed band of historians and sociologists had been engaged in redirecting civil religion away from Bellah’s initial formulation. Leading the charge were N. J. Demerath and Rhys Williams, whose 1986 article, “Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society,” encouraged scholars to be more deliberate in identifying how “specific groups and subcultures use versions of civil religion to frame, articulate, and legitimate their own particular political or moral visions.”7 Those following Demerath and Williams’s lead have set upon the task of cracking up the Humpty Dumpty of civil religion, while refusing to put it back together again.

I noticed a similar destructive impulse animating the work of southern religious historians, who also had been busy splitting apart the foundational assumptions of their field. Paul Harvey identified this trend in his 2002 historiographical essay on religion in the South after the Civil War. Along the way, Harvey praised Wilson’s Baptized in Blood but then added that the book “contrasts with much of the newer ‘splitter’ scholarship, which emphasizes the diversity and variety.”8

So there it was. In both the arena of civil religion theory and southern religious historiography, I finally had my golden thread.

But I still worried about the term, “civil religion.” Its very definition was contested to the point where Bellah stopped using it, explaining that he “grew weary of the whole definitional debate.”9 Rhys Williams has also since abandoned civil religion. But they both have said that they remain interested in the “substance” of the category, which, as Williams told me in an e-mail, is “the moral formulations that shape political discourse and action.” Additionally, both Bellah and Williams have framed their post-civil religion writing using the term, “the good society.”10

As the title of my book would indicate, I decided to hold on to civil religion, while mixing in the language of “the good society.” After much deliberation, I was certain that civil religion still has a place in scholarly and popular outlets. Put another way, I concluded that civil religion is more like Led Zeppelin than Winger. While “Stairway to Heaven” might have been overplayed on the radio, when I listen to the newest box set, I hear something that still resonates. I had been willing to gamble that civil religion was not a one hit wonder.

To my good fortune, civil religion has seen something of a revival since the publication of my book, punctuated by Raymond Haberski’s God and War.11 Ray has emerged as a keen observer of this new wave of civil religion scholarship, recently reporting on a conference in Germany that focused on the topic. After summarizing the papers, Ray recounted an ongoing conversation that he and I have been engaged in, that civil religion needs to move “beyond Bellah.” While neither of us will deny Bellah’s importance, we also think that the category should now transcend his infamous 1967 article. Our argument finds support from a 2004 article from Mark Silk, “Numa Pompilius and the Idea of Civil Religion in the West.” Here, Silk situates Bellah as one voice among many stretching back to the ancients who have tried to make sense of the religious character of a nation.

So my book came out at a good time, and captured upon a series of intersecting forces that are shaping how historians, religious studies scholars, sociologists, and many others are thinking about the South, southern religion, and civil religion. Ultimately, and perhaps paradoxically, it is my hope that future studies of civil religion will leave us with a murkier sense of what civil religion is. That is, I want mentions of civil religion to come with a host of qualifiers, taking careful note of the person, group, topic, and time. One person or group’s civil religious discourse is their own. Let’s do them the dignity of honoring their distinctiveness. In doing this, we will be left with an uneven, messy, and unpredictable picture of civil religion—one that better captures the uneven, messy, and unpredictable realities of America.

Editors’ Note: Read Edward Ayers’s review of Southern Civil Religions in the JSR here.

  1. Arthur J. Remillard, “Holy War on the Football Field: Religion and the Florida State University Mascot Controversy,” in Horsehide, Pigskin, Oval Tracts, and Apple Pie: Essays in Sports and American Culture, ed. James Vlasich (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005).

  2. Beth Barton Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia, Religion in the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  3. J. Wayne Flynt, Cracker Messiah: Governor Sidney J. Catts of Florida (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).

  4. Sharon Davies, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  5. Louis Schmier, ed., Reflections of Southern Jewry: The Letters of Charles Wessolowsky, 1878-1879 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 173.

  6. Arthur Remillard, Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). 33-37, 67-75.

  7. N. J. Demerath and Rhys Williams, “Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society,” Annals of the American Academy 480(July, 1985), 166.

  8. Paul Harvey, “Religion in the American South Since the Civil War,” in A Companion to the American South, ed. John B. Boles (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 394.

  9. Robert N. Bellah, “Comment,” Sociological Analysis vol. 50, no. 2 (1989), 147.

  10. Robert N. Bellah et al., The Good Society (New York: Knopf, 1991); Rhys H. Williams, “Visions of the Good Society and the Religious Roots of American Political Culture,” Sociology of Religion vol. 60, no. 1 (1999).

  11. Raymond Haberski, Jr., God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).