Author Reflection

Andrew Stern

Andrew Stern is Assistant Professor and Religious Studies Program Coordinator at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

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Andrew Stern, "Author Reflection," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Like many first books, Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross: Catholic-Protestant Relations in the Old South was conceived in a graduate seminar. While discussing the Diurnal of Bishop John England of Charleston, the professor, Dr. Brooks Holifield, observed that Protestant ministers often invited England to speak in their churches. He pointed out that this was rather surprising, and he suggested that someone ought to look into it. Seven years later, I published my book that examined Catholic-Protestant relations in the Old South that attempted to document the ways in which the two groups cooperated and to explain the harmony that generally prevailed between them.

The years I spent working on my dissertation and then book spanned the time between my graduate student years and the beginning of my teaching career. In a sense, the book was the bridge between the classroom desk and the podium, a transition that probably seems trivial to all except those who have chosen to make a career in education. As a result, it is natural that while I look back to the book’s origins in my time as a student, I also see how it shapes my experiences teaching today. I have in mind other research projects inspired by the findings of the book, but the reality is that I work at a small liberal arts college, so teaching occupies a far larger part of my time and energy than researching and writing. It is not what I expected or had prepared for, coming from a research university, but it is rewarding, not least because it gives me opportunities to reflect upon my scholarly work in new ways. In particular, there are three major themes that I covered in the book that I also see reflected in the ways my students experience and think about religion: first, the complexity of the southern religious landscape; second, the importance of art as a means through which people encounter other religions; and finally, the assumption of religious animosity in the U.S., and the importance of narratives of persecution to the self-understandings of religious groups.

One of the first conclusions I reached in researching Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross is that the common view of evangelical Protestant hegemony in the Old South is far too simple. Similarly, teaching in a small city in the New South with a student body drawn largely from the region indicates that the contemporary view of the South as the Bible Belt is also overdrawn. But even that statement is too simple: a majority of the people I study and the people I teach self-identify as Protestants, generally of various evangelical stripes, but what that means is often far from clear.

To get a sense of my students’ backgrounds, and the knowledge they bring to the class, I conduct two exercises at the beginning of each semester. Both mirror in interesting ways the conclusions of my book regarding southern religiosity. First, I have students write and submit (anonymously) a brief “spiritual autobiography.” This exercise confirms that most students fit into the broad category of Protestant, but few emphasize any particular denominational affiliation, and most indicate that they switched churches at least once during their upbringings. Furthermore, they articulate a wide range of theological opinions, including the view that Jesus is the greatest creation of God. (Imagine my surprise at learning that Arianism is alive in eastern North Carolina!) The second exercise is Stephen Prothero’s “Religious Literacy Quiz.” Prothero has argued that there is a strange disconnect between Americans’ professions of religious faith and their actual knowledge of religions, and my use of his quiz certainly supports his findings.[1] While most of my students self-identify as Christian, the large majority cannot name the four Gospels or the first five books or the Bible, nor can they match major Biblical characters and events. These results are not shocking, for other surveys have also demonstrated that many American Christians hold unorthodox views,[2] but they lend credence to the conclusion that the South is not solidly evangelical Protestant, at least as that term might be commonly understood. My own work suggests that in fact it never was. Antebellum Protestants drifted from church to church (or sometimes away from church entirely), espoused heterodox and syncretic views, and often reveled in the disconnect between the faiths they professed and the lives they actually led. Their legacy is alive in many of my students.

The second area of overlap between my research and teaching has to do with the importance of religious art. In trying to explain Protestant support for Catholicism in the antebellum South, one possibility is Catholicism’s aesthetic appeal. Jenny Franchot described this best in her work Roads to Rome, where she discussed the fascination with Catholicism that often lingered beneath the surface of American anti-Catholicism, the seemingly paradoxical dynamic of simultaneous attraction and repulsion.[3] Antebellum Protestants felt drawn, at times against their wills, to the splendid Catholic cathedrals and churches they encountered abroad or in their own cities, and as a result they developed a sort of admiration for Catholicism. In the same way, I have found that one of the most effective ways to introduce my students to different faiths and to pique the curiosity and wonder essential for learning is to use the art of the faiths in question.

This was especially striking a few semesters ago when I had the chance to accompany a group of students on a tour of Catalonia. Most of the students were from small towns in eastern North Carolina and the surrounding areas. As I chatted with them it became clear that if they were churchgoers (and most were, at least intermittently), they generally worshipped in austere churches stripped of everything that might distract worshippers from the Word, or in nondescript nondenominational churches, designed to look like warehouses to avoid alienating anyone for whom a traditional church holds negative connotations. I could not help thinking of my antebellum southerners on their “grand tours” of Europe as I watched my students take in the wonders of the ancient churches of Lleida, Girona, and Barcelona, the monastery of Montserrat, and of course La Sagrada Familia. As the narrator of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (a text I occasionally use in senior seminars) notes regarding the splendors of Rome: “foreign guests are indeed ungrateful, if they do not breathe a prayer for Pope Clement, or whatever Holy Father it may have been” who commissioned the wonders of the city. These wonders “reconcile the stranger…to the rule of an irresponsible dynasty of Holy Fathers, who seem to have aimed at making life as agreeable an affair as it can well be.”[4] I do not know if my students breathed a prayer of thanks for any pope, past or present, but surely their impression of Catholicism changed over the course of the trip.

Of course there are limits to the understanding imparted by religious art and architecture. To an American student with no knowledge of Catholicism, the iconography of a cathedral can be as incomprehensible as a beautiful poem written in Chinese. Nonetheless, as antebellum Catholics surely knew, and as their Protestant neighbors–and my students–often discovered, the spectacle of religious art and architecture could open minds and engender appreciation, if not total comprehension.

The most important conclusion of my book–rooted in that first observation from Bishop England’s Diurnal so many years ago–is also the thing that strikes me most in my teaching: despite a paucity of hard evidence, people continue to assume that religious animosity and persecution are defining forces in American history. One recent case struck particularly close to home: in February, 2015, three students in Chapel Hill, just up the road from my college, were murdered by a neighbor. Virtually every commentator, including my students, seized upon the fact that the three young people were Muslims. The dominant narrative assumed this must have been a hate crime, despite the lack of hard evidence that the victims’ faith actually had anything to do with the killing.[5] My students take it as axiomatic that religious persecution is a pressing problem in American and in this they are not alone. Historians of religion, and students of contemporary American religiosity likewise assure us that America is and always has been a hotbed of hatred of religious minorities. Once people assume there must be widespread religious antipathy, they of course find it everywhere, and soon everyone begins to claim victimhood. Even mainstream Christians get in on the action, claiming, not without some justification, that they are at least as persecuted in contemporary society as any other religious group.[6] In this way, assumptions of persecution become dominant themes in the stories people tell about their faith traditions and thus in their self-understandings.

While there certainly were cases of religiously inspired violence in the Old South, as there are today, I try to warn my students against allowing the shock and revulsion we feel at such acts to create a false narrative. Just like a burning convent invariably attracts historians’ attention, violence towards religious minorities invariably grabs headlines today, regardless of how rare such violence actually was and is. It is easy to be misled by the dramatic and to forget that it is also atypical. There is today a sort of cottage industry in American higher education dedicated to the promotion of interfaith cooperation. These groups take as their raison d’être (and as the justification for the grants and university financing they receive) the combatting of religious intolerance. This is surely a laudable goal, yet their rhetoric obscures the reality that ordinary Americans have generally achieved that cooperation just fine without academics’ help.[7]

Focusing on the incidents of antipathy and violence in U.S. religious history engenders a view that is not so much incorrect as incomplete. There is another side to the story. The fact that millions of Americans in every era have quietly gone about their lives, peacefully interacting with neighbors and strangers of different faiths, does not lend itself to attention-grabbing headlines or theses, but it is still important and should figure prominently in our stories of U.S. religious history. In fact, I believe it is the most remarkable aspect of that history. Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognize it though. I often think of one of the first sources I encountered in my research, the travelogue of a Frenchmen named Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, who settled for a while in America in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps because he could contrast the American and European scenes, he remarked at length on the wonderful harmony that existed between different religious groups in America.[8] But most historians have not been as perceptive. One exception was Sydney Ahlstrom, who, in his ur-text A Religious History of the American People, remarked, in words that often echo in my head like some sort of mantra, that Catholics in early America “suffered legal disabilities of various sorts, but in no other thoroughly Protestant land were they so free.”[9] I encourage my students not to let their focus on the first part of the equation–and whatever its twenty-first-century equivalents might be–obscure the second part: the remarkable religious harmony that has generally prevailed in America, almost without parallel in human history.[10] I intended my book as a sort of corrective to the dominant historiographical view; now I find myself addressing the same misperceptions among my students.

From the time I decided to pursue a career in higher education I recognized that researching and publishing would be a precondition for acceptance into the ranks of the professoriate. My teachers and mentors in graduate school assured me that such endeavors would also enrich my teaching. I realize now that they were quite correct, perhaps even more so than they imagined. The process of writing my book not only raised questions I would like to address in future projects but also anticipated many of the themes that emerge repeatedly in my interactions with my students. Who knew that all those hours spent in dusty libraries and archives, researching people who died centuries ago, would be such excellent preparation for teaching young adults today?

[1] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American needs to Know – And Doesn’t (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

[2] See, for example, Pew Research Center, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Dec 9, 2009.

[3] Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[4] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (New York: Dover, 2004 [1860]) 59.

[5] As an example of commentators’ determination to find a religious motive in this incident, see Margaret Talbot, “The Story of a Hate Crime,” The New Yorker (June 22, 2015).

[6] As one example of this narrative among evangelical Christians today, see K.A. Ellis, “Are US Christians Really ‘Persecuted’?” Christianity Today (September, 2016). The author answers this question in the affirmative.

[7] For an example of this phenomenon, see Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016). Patel’s work provides an excellent case study in how commentators string together anecdotes of religious antipathy and try to convince the public that these isolated cases represent a much broader reality.

[8] Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer; Describing Certain Provincial Situations, Manners, and Customs, Not Generally Known (Dublin: John Exshaw, 1782), 47–48.

[9] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1972), 380.

[10] I should note that some historians, though a minority, do give attention to religious harmony. To cite just one example, see Arthur Remillard’s discussion of the Hungarian Jewish immigrant Samuel Farkas and his descendants in his recent essay in these pages. “Reflection on Southern Civil Religions; or, Confessions of an Academic Carpetbagger,” JSR 16 (2014).