Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era by Arthur Remillard (review)
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Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era. By Arthur Remillard. (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Pp. x, 234. $59.95 cloth; $24.95 paper)

The Wiregrass, covering portions of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, contained some of the most dynamic towns and cities of the New South and an enigmatically heterogeneous population. The late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century South is usually depicted as a period of male-dominated herrenvolk democracy and merciless economic exploitation to match. Amid it all, Professor Remillard finds a number of voices demanding to be heard above the mill fans and railcars. White Protestant masculine hegemony had to compete (albeit usually quite successfully) with minorities—particularly women, blacks, Jews, and Catholics—to establish once and for all the predominant interpretation of the good society in the region. Even in so inequitable a time and place, Remillard argues that "there was no consensus view in the South on the region's ultimate purpose and destiny" (pp. 5-6). He manages to avoid using the word "agency," [End Page 111] although that is precisely what he is talking about.

Charles Reagan Wilson's Baptized in Blood (1983) showed that the Lost Cause was intertwined with white southern civil religion in the decades following Reconstruction. In Remillard's Wiregrass, nothing trumped "the southern white necessity to maintain racial supremacy" (p. 44). Northerners looked to Florida as the southern paragon of race relations even as the state had highest percentage of lynchings in the region (and, presumably, in the nation). But that did not mean black Southerners were silent. They fought Jim Crow by demonstrating their roles as American citizens rather than by confronting the whites who trod upon their citizenship. The black middle class stressed interracial cooperation and the mutual benefits of business growth. Remillard never disputes U. B. Phillips's dictum about the South being a "white man's country," but he does show that black Southerners had something to say about it.

White Wiregrass Protestants welcomed Jews more than they did Catholics. Jewish Southerners ingratiated themselves to white Protestants by acting out the role expected of industrious, patriotic white Southerners. Short years before the Leo Frank lynching, one Alabama rabbi celebrated his "free country" where "religious tolerance prevails and all bigotry is banished" (pp. 110-11). This was, of course, when the French Dreyfus affair and Russian pogroms were fresh memories, and, in that light, Frank's murder could be portrayed as anomalous.

Wiregrass Catholics fared comparatively poorly, especially as Prohibition came to define politics in many southeastern states. Remillard considers the 1921 shooting of Father James Coyle (and his anti-Catholic killer's subsequent acquittal) a more telling event than the Frank lynching. Aside from having to endure jejune assumptions about Catholics' anti-American fealty to Rome, Catholics were also targeted for supposedly upsetting the applecart of racial hierarchy. Parochial schools that accepted black students stood as the only challenge to separation of the races and job-hungry Catholic immigrants disrupted "the old line of Anglo-Saxon and African" (p. 136). Still, like all of the groups of Southerners Remillard covers, [End Page 112] Wiregrass Catholics persisted in making a place for themselves in American civil religion. If nothing else, the author modestly claims, white Catholics "remoralized the South for themselves" decades before black Southerners were able to grasp fully realized personhood (p. 162). The only group with no space in American civil religion, he concludes, are atheists.

Remillard hedges slightly by using evidence from parts of the South far removed from the Wiregrass like Texas and Arkansas (the atheist in his afterword was a Kentuckian). This is okay since his larger point has import outside of the Wiregrass, but it leaves the question of whether this section of three states is meant to be taken as exemplary or exceptional (Mobile and Pensacola end up seeming surprisingly cosmopolitan, even for coastal cities). Fans of W. J. Cash's monolithic South will not enjoy this book so much, while readers who value the stories of even the numerically smallest minorities will find much to cheer about in this relatively short book.