Introduction

Charles McCrary

Charles McCrary is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.

Cite this Article

Charles McCrary, "Introduction: Southern Religion through its Dissenters, Outsiders, and Critics," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/mccrary.

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This forum examines southern religion through its others, those who—intentionally or not, by their choice or others’—have been excluded from the dominant forms of belief and practice that often stand in for “religion” itself.[1] In the way that the “religious right” did not include members of all religions, or even all members of Christianity, powerful groups are able to use more generic labels for what are really quite particular. Likewise, the study of southern religion, in the Journal of Southern Religion and elsewhere, oftentimes centers on evangelical Protestants. There are reasons for this, some of them perfectly good. There are a lot of evangelicals! And when many observers look at the South, through various media, the religion they see has the features of evangelicalism, although this category is in itself capacious, including megachurch Southern Baptists, serpent handlers, prosperity preachers, tent revivals, storefront black churches, Johnny Cash’s mother’s hymnal, and more. While evangelicals do of course maintain significant cultural influence and often (but neither always nor everywhere) demographic dominance, they are far from the only religious actors in the South. Despite frequent mention of “buckles” and their many locations, the original meaning of the “Bible Belt” metaphor was agricultural, signifying a fertile belt of land specializing in one crop. But no region really grows only one crop. And all crops have weeds. So, if the South is the Bible Belt, we ask, what else grows there?

Rather than address this question through the lenses of “religious diversity” or “pluralism,” though those are potentially useful, this forum reexamines southern religion through its dissenters, outsiders, and critics. These folks not only fall outside normative conceptions of southern religion, but they know it too. They are conscious of their outsider status and use it as a place from which to critique dominant forms of religiosity in the South.[2] This focus thus offers a look at southern religion through a window from outside it, even as the viewers are, regionally at least, on the inside.

The four contributors wrote in response to a set of questions, including – How have various “outsiders” understood their identities as southern and/or religious? How can scholars approach these outsiders without studying them as anomalies or tokens? What are the most common depictions of southern religion, and how have they been challenged historically and historiographically? How does race factor in the history and historiography of southern religion? Is the South really more religious than other parts of the United States—and what does that mean? Is southern atheism distinct among other regional atheisms, and how so? What is southern secularism, and what does it tell us about southern religion?

The forum opens with Shari Rabin’s piece on insider and outsider bodies in the South. Rabin shows, through a discussion of nineteenth-century southern mohalim, how the markings of religious identifications and practices have been visible and invisible in southern bodies. This issue extends to scholars’ gazes as well: when we look at southern religious bodies, who makes the cut? Next, Christopher Cameron examines atheistic slave narratives. Though the historiography of African American religions, and particularly slave religion, is dominated by attention to Protestantism and the “black church” (though this is steadily changing), a black freethinking tradition has thrived in the United States. Cameron finds slaves and former slaves disbelieving and disavowing the religion of their enslavers, both in very famous texts and in less well-known narratives. Keeping with the theme of atheism but jumping to the twenty-first century, Joshua Urich examines southern atheists’ uses of internet forums to form discursive communities, share resources, and give advice on how to deal with their minority status and, at times, the negative consequences of that status. In the final contribution, Kelly Gannon takes a historiographical view of southern religion, arguing for a more global approach. Gannon argues that people and places originating or residing outside the South, though outsiders in a number of senses, belong inside the study of southern religion. As the study of southern religion progresses, scholars—from a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives—ought to take into account dissenters, outsiders, and critics not just to add more flavor or diversity to our studies, but because of the valuable critical insights these subjects can lend us. In this way, the study of southern religion should become simultaneously broader and sharper.


[1] Drawing insights from critical race and gender studies, scholars of religion and secularism have shown how this process works, how specific forms of religion come to be understood as religion-in-general. See, e.g., Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). This matters for a number of reasons, not least that the secular state must understand a particular belief as “religion” in order to guarantee believers’ religious freedom. Christian- or Protestant-inflected definitions are not only a southern phenomenon, of course, nor are they exclusively American. See, e.g., Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Ann Pellegrini and Janet R. Jakobsen, eds., Secularisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Peter van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] In this way, the forum as a whole, as well as the individual contributions, could be understood in dialogue with R. Laurence Moore’s Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), on its thirtieth anniversary of publication. Some scholars took Moore’s points and bent them toward discussions of pluralism and religious hybridity, but Moore’s essays also allow for a more interesting and dynamic reading of the relationship between the “center” and “periphery” in American religion, both historically and historiographically.

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