“Purity is a Great Thing, Friend!” declared Sovereign Cigarette in a 1917 advertisement that ran in a Sanford, North Carolina newspaper. The animated figure, matchstick arms in the air, wore what looked like an American flag for a hat, a flame with a headband of stars. Sovereign grinned broadly, content with a sponge bath given from a white maid. Below, three objects—soap, honeycomb, and an Easter lily—illustrated the command, “Keep Clean, and Sweet, and Pure.” Below that slogan Sovereign offered a letter to the consumer:

My folks down South keep telling me: “Be clean and sweet and pure.” And I’ll bet you I am just about the purest cigarette ever made! Why, the SOVEREIGN factory is dusted every morning, just like a lady’s parlor. That’s the sort of home I have. And I’ve got to make good all the time—in the look of me, and the smoke of me. The finest, whitest, cleanest home you ever saw. Only the purest, sweetest, richest Virginia and Carolina tobacco enters there. And when I come out, wrapped in the daintiest of white imported paper—don’t you know I am proud to be a SOVEREIGN?

You Folks of the South KNOW good blood!

You Folks of the South KNOW good tobacco!

Next to good breeding is good dress and good taste—and I have them all. That’s my claim to your friendship. I can’t say more except—

I am guaranteed by The American Tobacco Co. —Buy me. If you don’t like me return me to your dealer and get your money back. I have said it. A Southern gentleman is known the world over for keeping his word, and I have given you mine.1

  • Sanford Express February 23, 1917.

The Sovereign advertisement shows how mass-marketers co-opted the moral language of southern Protestants to sell their product, much like northern stores such as Macy’s used Protestant themes to promote consumer holidays in late nineteenth and early twentieth century.2 Marketers of Sovereign worked to make secular consumption a religious habit, without ever demanding the consumer admit that what they did, what they bought, how they shopped, was now a part of their religious world.

From a particular evangelical Protestant perspective, the advertisement for Sovereign Cigarettes was “of the secular world.” Evangelicals in the early twentieth century publically opposed the profane vices of drinking, gambling, and smoking. Following the ratification of the National Alcohol Prohibition in 1919, evangelist Billy Sunday declared, “Prohibition has won, now for tobacco.” Christian organizations, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union promoted anti-smoking propaganda.3 Marketers of Sovereign Cigarette, though, appropriated the very same codes of cleanliness, sweetness, and purity that evangelical men like Sunday associated with chaste “non-working” women, and then branded those religious values as culturally southern, as in “you folks of the South know good blood.”4

In this essay, I use the marketing template of Sovereign Cigarette to reflect on the relationship between religion and culture in the American South. Scholars of the region typically have assumed that evangelical Christianity defined the dominant mode of southern religion. They have employed three distinct but complimentary approaches to interpret its relationship to secular culture: as cultural captives, cultural carriers, or religious cultures. Working at the limits of these approaches, I offer the comparative category of “material morality.” This represents a theoretical attempt to account for the normative similarities of ritual practice across southern religion and secular culture, while acknowledging that southern evangelicals, the believers that have defined southern religion, often recognized those spheres as different, one from the other, as kingdom business from earthly business, and classified them accordingly, as religious from secular.

Each of these approaches, of cultural captivity, cultural carriers, and religious cultures is represented, respectively, in three foundational works in the field: Sam Hill’s 1967 Southern Churches in Crisis, Don Mathews’s 1977 Religion in the Old South, and Charles Reagan Wilson’s 1980 Baptized in Blood. Taken together, these works defined a historical narrative of southern Protestant consensus and contestation, of white evangelicals as captives to southern culture, of black evangelicals as carriers of a prophetic culture of social justice and civil rights, and of an overwhelming sense that southern culture was infused with evangelical religion, even when it is not a matter of belief. To cite William Faulkner, as Hill and Wilson and others have done, “It’s just there.” And “It has nothing to do with how much of it I believe or disbelieve.”5

The core assumptions of this historical narrative, though, have been significantly revised within roughly the last twenty years. Much of the revision has been led by and in response to Beth Barton Schweiger’s call to move beyond the captivity thesis and to account for religious diversity, while acknowledging that evangelicalism thrived in the South during its most intense periods of modern industrialization.6 From Schweiger and others we have learned that secularization, at least in Max Weber’s understanding of modern industrialization as a disenchanting force, did not happen. In doing so, we have quieted to some extent the Weberian voice that will not cease, that always speaks of culture in the external sense, as an invasive force from the outside that disrupts the religious self and with it southern subjectivity. This voice we heard in Faulkner who noted there were two separate Quentins—the “Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South” and “the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that…the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in not language.” This was a southern voice in tension with a modern north, of a past awaiting a future, a new arrival, of a modern world in which the “voice would not cease, it would just vanish.” And this was the sound of cultural captivity, the clang of an iron cage, within which progressive southerners looked out, hoping that if there was no escape for Quentin, despite his attempt to run north, that the north, with its liberal tradition, might move south. Such was the scholarly hope of a cultural “invasion,” to quote Sam Hill, “of modern secular (though moral) and religiously diverse forces into a formerly more isolated and homogenous culture.”7

Historiographical revisions suggest, though, that the invasion was not just from without, but as much from within. That is, modernizing forces were as latent in the South as they were powerful in the North. Given an industrial break, southerners, from rural to urban, willingly modernized. Churches added steeples atop and built baptisteries inside. Cities paved streets above and installed pipes below. And as southerners secularized, in their economic differentiation, voluntary associations, and municipal governance, they became ever more religious, in personal piety and congregational promotions. Such patterns defied Weberian projections. For the soul of Protestantism, here evangelicalism, did not die in its cage, but was set forth, to be freed as the spirit of an industrial age, a spirit both seen and unseen, living on in the recognizable religiosity of church sermons and public prayers, but also hiding itself in the silent secularity of cultural forms, of renewed parades, minstrel traditions, and mass marketing. In the eyes of the believer, though, to see the one was to ignore the other.

And it is here, that the third, and more functionally Durkheimian, interpretive model of religious culture, is most useful, especially as a way to think about the idea of difference in the plural. For it is this third model that has helped scholars of religion in the American South see the world the way it is, the way Faulkner saw it, as entirely religious. Yet, a key problem remains, and that is for most southerners, as for most Americans, the whole world is not religious. A missionary field, yes. But that is not the same thing. Religion is not everywhere, even if as scholars we often see it that way. Such is the critical break between our scholarship and our subjects. For we define what religion is [theological ideas or meaning making systems] and relate it to what religion does [function as ritual, popular, social, or cultural practice]. But in our interpretations, we struggle to account for how ideas and practices are classified as religious or not religious, both by us and by our subjects, and what those classifications mean in terms of understanding the relationship between southern religion and secular culture.

Methodological struggles in the study of southern religion are indicative of broader challenges in the study of religion as a comparative discipline. In other words, how do we account for the relationship between that which may seem obviously religious, like shrines, pilgrimage, and processions, and that which might not, like banks, country clubs, and cars. Within religious studies, we tend to look for cultural examples that resemble taken for granted religious patterns, like college football as moral community, McDonalds as world religion, and Coca Cola as totemic consumption. And yet we constantly qualify such comparisons by saying those things are “like” religion, or “quasi” religions, or “almost” religious. What would happen if we dropped the qualifiers and the forced categories and came closer to how the people we study and talk to classify their worlds? In turn, how would such an analytical move—a move already made in the History of Religions, clearly described in David Chidester’s 1996 Savage Systems, with his call not to compare religions, but rather to “compare comparisons”—help scholars of the South better understand the relationship between southern religion and secular culture?8 Perhaps it would mean that we supplement “religion” with relational comparative categories, of the sacred, the secular, the spiritual, or the moral, while studying each categorical classification, including religion, in the same way that we already study race. That is, using critical race theory, we readily acknowledge there is no biological essence to race, but still recognize that race is made into a social fact with real effects. We study the ritual constructions and social classifications of race. We study racial hierarchies and racial segregation. But we do not study races. We compare racial comparison. In similar terms, we might acknowledge that there is no essential difference between southern religion and secular culture, as already implied in a religious cultural model, yet still account for how religion is set apart from the secular, how it is classified as different, and how those classifications have political effects. Perhaps we shall no longer compare southern religions, but instead compare southern comparisons.

To set about such a project demands we account for the distance between our academic view of structural similitude and our subjects’ view of lived difference, noting that such distance signals a methodological problem of self-identification, one that emerges in the study of southern religion from its most central subject: evangelical Protestants. We have paid close attention to one side of southern subjectivity, of religion defined by belief, and then applied it to the other side, of culture defined by fate. We have used the evangelical criterion of a confession of faith, translated it into the sociological terms of self-identification, in order to make theological sense of a cultural system that does not demand we believe the whole world is religious, could care less if we speak of racial discernment and product consumption outside the church in confessional terms, and in fact would prefer we keep it that way, for the southern secular is most powerful in its religious absence and racial silence.

Southern white proponents of the Lost Cause, for example, would have no trouble saying that what they preached was what they believed. But would southern white citizens say the same about their Fourth of July celebration? Yet, how different really, in terms of ritual performance, were those two traditions? Didn’t they both express a certain variety of civil religion? And if they were both civil religious expressions, did it matter that one set of practitioners, those professing nationalism present, and not nationalism past [itself a secular distinction], would not confess that they believed in what they said and what they did, that they believed, in the strongest terms of ultimate salvation, in pig races, and greasy poles, and baseball games, and mammy floats, and minstrel shows, and mock weddings, and skinny legs contests, and beauty queens, and tractor pulls, and old cars. None of these things, they considered a religious cause in the same manner as the one they lost. We can speak of Lost Cause belief. But can we say the same of all nationalist rites? We can speak of the religious reasons evangelical organizations, like the WCTU, opposed smoking. But can we say the same for those who promoted and purchased cigarettes? What do we make of the difference between religious speech and secular silence? And by what means can we make comparisons that acknowledge that difference?

As an attempt to answer those questions, I will in the remainder of the essay apply what religious studies scholar Manuel Vasquez has described as a “non-reductive materialist framework,” in order to examine subjects, objects, and practices that are not self-identifiably religious, focusing particularly on the Sovereign Cigarette ad. This will require slightly revising Vasquez’s approach, and I hope that these revisions will be methodologically useful for thinking about the study of southern religion. Like the first two foundational models of our field—cultural captives and cultural carriers—Vasquez’s proposal for a materialist methodology begins with what he describes as “situated actors,” those “who have come to identify what they do as religious.” But like the third foundational model, that of religious cultures suggests, not all of the cases fit that description. The Sovereign advertisement is but one example. Working through Vasquez’s non-reductive materialist framework is useful, I think, because it offers an alternative way to think through classic Durkheimian problems, and points in the direction of a materialist reading of Durkheim, one that can be used for our purposes to revise a religious cultural model into one that accounts for the similarities and differences of southern religion and secular culture.

The intervention I offer is an invitation to extend the study of material religion to include the study of material morality, or the study of situated actors who come to identify what they do as moral. This move is not too big of a stretch, I think, because Vasquez already has provided theoretical tools to rematerialize those founding theorists, like Durkheim, who separate moral from material as transcendent from immanent. Working out the logics of Vasquez’s approach, I reconsider that Durkheimian distinction to reposition the “non-religious” Sovereign ad within the purview of religious studies and in turn reconsider the study of religion in the American South.

As Vasquez notes, a latent materialism exists within Durkheim’s thought, but is thwarted by his quest for moral transcendence, his social Kantianism, or his desire to maintain an external world of a priori meaning. Vasquez highlights Durkheim’s ambivalence with materialism by citing his claim that “All religions, even the crudest, are in a sense spiritualistic: for the powers they put in play are before all spiritual and also their principle object is to act upon the moral life.” To materialize Durkheim, then, has a certain interpretive implication, a certain revision of a core assumption. It means that as we recover religion from its spiritualist perch, and return it to the sacred ground of material things, we also carry morality, its silent sibling, with us.

In Durkheim’s schema, religion contains within itself both “the material world and the moral world.” But those worlds, he maintained, were split apart in modern life. Industrial techniques, like those used in the factory home of Sovereign, dusted every morning like a lady’s parlor, were sharpened tools for the excision. Durkheim considered industrial techniques born of religion; however, like natural science, he said they were “useful to material life” and not “moral life.”9 In short, for Durkheim, industrialization prepared the material conditions, facilitating the social evolution of differentiated divisions of labor, upon which religion wrote its moral principles.

But if we move beyond belief, as a materialist approach demands we do, then we return to the ritual practice as manufacturing and not just representing meaning. If we rematerialize religion, then industrial techniques, the very techniques that remade the South, are useful to both material and moral life, because the spatial arrangement of material things, including the racial segregation of physical bodies, is the moral order.

These are the patterns contained in the opening example. In the promotion of Sovereign Cigarette, marketers infused a mass-produced object with moral meaning, transforming a factory commodity into an androgynous symbol of transcendent virtue. That moral meaning, though, depended upon southern religious norms of gender and race written into the spatial segregation of everyday life, even as the ad attempted to transcend that localized materiality. Notice that Sovereign is never identified with a gendered pronoun. As depicted in image and text, Sovereign simultaneously represents feminine and masculine qualities of southern white goodness. Sovereign’s home is as clean as a lady’s parlor. Sovereign is wrapped in the daintiest of paper. But Sovereign also is like the honest men who give their word, and Sovereign has “got to make good all the time.” In this presentation, marketers extracted a culturally specific understanding of the moral “good,” restated it as a universal maxim, associated it with their product, and sold it as a distinguishing feature of the “southern gentlemen,” who demonstrated his knowledge of good blood and good tobacco in his discernment of good dress and good taste.10

The advertisement for Sovereign Cigarettes illustrates the techniques of early twentieth century marketing. In the regulated world of industrial America, mass-marketers promoted cleanliness and efficiency, moral habits increasingly valued in an ever-growing managerial culture. Cultural historian Jackson Lears argued that marketers used advertisements to create consumer desire and then sold their product as a controlled release of that desire. Cigarettes, for example, were marketed as an “efficient” form of leisure. For Lears, the tension between control and release in American advertising was rooted in the romantic and ascetic ethics of Protestantism. “Advertisements and advice literature alike,” he proposed, “revealed that the emergent managerial culture offered not a critique but a continuation of Protestant patterns of thought. Religious longings for purification and regeneration were reincarnated in an ethos of personal efficiency.”11

Sovereign Cigarette was a DixieBrand version of that ethos; it perpetuated Protestant patterns of thought, though of a southern variety. There was no mention of recognizably religious things in the ad. No Jesus. No Bible. No Cross. Yet, its consumptive discourse shared the moral lessons and material habits familiar to southern white Protestants. Those included an emphasis on spiritual and physical cleanliness (revivals converted souls and were a catalyst for town clean-up efforts); a commitment to civility (an emphasis on propriety and a preference for polite speech over bawdy expression); and an association of racial purity with white femininity (with the corresponding code of honor in which gentlemen treated ladies with respect, opening doors and tipping hats, and vowed to protect them from sexual violation). In this advertisement, each of these components were mapped onto the tripartite of soap, honeycomb, and Easter Lilly—the three material objects used to express the mantra, “Be clean and sweet and pure.”

Both the study of material religion, and the study of southern religion, as currently configured, do not account for this secular type of material morality. One might ask at this point, “What happened to Marx, and isn’t the Sovereign ad merely a commodity fetish?” And that person may be right. The object does appear to have a life of its own. But the ad reveals more than a substitutionary social relationship. Its moral meanings are more transparent than mystifying, because they are written into and are dependent upon an effusive materiality of southern religion and southern culture in relation to one another. Taken-for-granted by its southern practitioners, who seldom if ever admit the self-obvious, moral assumptions move across identifiably southern religious and culturally secular spheres with a handshake and a whisper.

Using this case study, I suggest we consider material morality as a discursive starting point for the study of religion and culture in the American South. Material morality connects southern religion and secular culture, as Sovereign Cigarette illustrates. The categorical addition, I think, may help extend the interpretative gaze beyond what Vasquez describes as the “naming and articulation of religion as relatively stable and patterned reality recognized by both insiders and outsiders.”12 This is the most widely accepted interpretive frame within religious studies, even though it is a rather narrow one, for it does not account for subjects who move through religious and secular spheres, and practice similar rituals and express similar moral dispositions in both, but only name one ritual sphere or set of practices as religion in any stable or patterned way recognizable to both insiders and outsiders. More specifically, for the study of the South, this approach does not help make sense of evangelical Protestants, who rarely name or recognize their practices outside the church as religious. Those same Protestants, especially within the limits of the South, however, willingly name their practices “moral” and articulate their own material morality of everyday life.

Perhaps, then, keeping southern evangelical Protestants in mind, there are different types of religious materiality, or different configurations of what Vasquez describes as a relationship between immanence and transcendence. The category of material morality may help us better understand that dynamic relationship. Vasquez offers a coherent methodology for the material study of religious practice and secular culture, one that connects the “logics of religious ways of being in the world” to “other (nonreligious) ways of being in the world.” But, as with Hill (Vasquez’s colleague at the University of Florida) and Mathews (Hill’s colleague at the University of North Carolina) this approach assumes a starting point that depends on the situated actor’s willingness to name the religious and the scholar’s ability to distinguish it from the nonreligious. Yet, as evident in the advertisement for Sovereign Cigarette, DixieBrand marketers seldom identified their promotions as religious. But that did not necessarily mean, I think, that their actions were entirely disconnected from religious practice, nor were they another name for religion. Rather, DixieBrand marketers sold a material morality shared by southern evangelicals, but rebranded it as a cultural practice that those very evangelicals deemed set apart from religion, as something of the secular world.

  1. Sanford Express February 23, 1917.

  2. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  3. Jacob Sullum, For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 37.

  4. Jane Elizabeth Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 195.

  5. Charles Reagan Wilson, “William Faulkner and the Southern Religious Culture,” Judgment & Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007); Samuel S. Hill, “Tell About the South: Why Are They So Religious?,” Journal of Southern Religion 12 (2010). http://jsreligion.org/Volume12/Sam%20Hill%20Lecture.html

  6. Beth Barton Schweiger, “The Captivity of Southern Religious History.” Paper delivered at the Southern Intellectual History Circle, Birmingham, Alabama, February 1997. Beth Barton Schweiger, “Forum on Southern Religion,” Religion and American Culture (Summer 1998): 161-166; Samuel S. Hill, “Introduction,” Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999); Charles Reagan Wilson, “Preface to 2009 Edition: The Lost Cause and the Civil Religion in Recent Historiography,” Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).

  7. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited, xxx.

  8. David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 29.

  9. Vasquez, More than Belief, 225.

  10. The Sovereign Cigarette advertisement further illustrates a secular attempt, offered by marketers, to reconcile what historian Amy Wood has noted as a tension between religious submission and southern manhood. Wood writes, “Southern evangelicals had long wrestled with the seeming contradiction between proscriptive Christian virtues, such as submissiveness, sacrifice, and purity, and virtues associated with southern white manhood, such as power and assertiveness. As one evangelical noted in Rome, Georgia, ‘If a young man has a good case of religion, he is generally known as a sissy in society.’” Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 57. The Sovereign ad attempts to reconcile that tension by making such virtues associated with feminine purity acceptable for the civilized gentleman of discerning taste as a matter of conspicuous consumption and not the marker of a physical trait.

  11. Jackson T. J Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 46, 183.

  12. Vasquez, More than Belief, 8.