- The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town by Chad E. Seales
Briefly stated, this is a book about religion, civic and social power, and culture in the American South, as experienced in the relatively small North Carolina town [End Page 682] of Siler City, from the latter 1800s through the beginning of the twenty-first century. Utilizing various concepts of “secularization” as defined by several contemporary sociologists, Seales explores the transformation of religious, civic, and community life, with special attention to race relations, in Siler City throughout the period indicated. In particular, he studies and describes the changing status of African Americans and immigrant Latinos in relation to a once-dominant white Protestant political and cultural landscape. By 2000, he reports, Latinos—mostly Mexican immigrants—constituted 40 percent of the population of Siler City. Employing “thick description,” Seales both provides many examples of the theories provided and often raises interesting questions about the relation of religion, race, and culture.
Chad Seales is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. This volume apparently began as his PhD dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is not situated far from the locus of this study. There are sixty-one pages of detailed endnotes and a helpful index. There are also several helpful photos interspersed throughout the text. Sadly, there are no maps to assist the reader and only one chart, whereas more might have been useful. Because of its heavy reliance on and description of sociological theories, this book might best be considered for graduate students rather than a general readership.
This reviewer would have appreciated more theological depth in what is in the main an interesting analysis. More attention might also have been given to the (contrasting?) meanings of Catholic practices both from the perspective of formal church doctrine and through the perspective of the immigrants of Siler City. More analysis might also have been paid to the question of the various places of origin of these same immigrants and the differences in customs, beliefs, and rituals that might have resulted because of that variety. Finally, there is not enough historical analysis or comparison with other Southern towns or regions, even within North Carolina. But future studies might address these issues. This book provides a good starting place from which to consider these questions.
Searles contends that a previously dominant liberal white Protestantism actively participated in the secularization of public life in the course of the civil rights movements of the mid- and late-twentieth century, and also in response to the significant immigration of Latino Catholics. Seales holds that the religious-secular transitions studied in this book are best understood in terms of “spatial relationship” rather than in terms of a continuum. Thus, while public life and space in Siler City were progressively “secularized” in response to changing demographics and other societal factors, “religious feeling was portable” (p. 15) and could be taken anywhere into the world. In the end, he concludes, “Southern secularism” (p. 144), at least for the dominant white Protestant community, protects and preserves the most sacred values. [End Page 683]