Religion, Race, and the Right

Here is Mark Noll's interesting review of my book Freedom's Coming, from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. He provides an excellent overview of the book, says some kind words, and ends with an interesting critique and discussion.

He begins:

Paul Harvey's well-researched book provides a welcome overview of a complex
subject that has been as important for national public life as for American
religious history. Continuity in the volume is maintained by Harvey's focus on
"theological racism," "racial interchange," and "Christian interracialism" in
the South from the time of the Civil War to the early twenty-first century. At
one level, Harvey offers a relatively clear history of causes and effects, with
widespread "theological racism" being undercut by "racial interchange and
leading on to "Christian interracialism." Yet most of the book does not dwell on
this large-scale narrative; rather, it features a great deal of insightful local
history, many telling personal vignettes, careful attention to institutional
development, and probing denominational history in which the three main themes
are interwoven more as recurring leitmotifs than as links in a causal chain.

In a later paragraph, Noll takes issue with my argument in chapter five, about how contemporary southern religious conservatives has jettisoned older racist arguments, but have retained the traditional conservative emphasis on order and hierarchy, only this time applied to gender (oversimplified, but basically that's the point). Here is Noll's response:

Harvey's succinct interpretations of the recent past are convincing, with
perhaps one exception. He develops at some length the argument that the
postcivil rights ideology advanced by some Southern religious conservatives can
be explained by the shape of earlier racist ideology: in his words, "the
standard biblical arguments against racial equality, now looked upon as an
embarrassment from a bygone age, have found their way rather easily into the
contemporary religious right's stance on the family" (246). This connection is
certainly plausible. But as Harvey himself has demonstrated, the strongest link
is between literal biblical arguments for slavery (rather than literal biblical
arguments for racial inequality) and literal biblical arguments for the
traditional family. Religiously considered, it was the weakness of explicitly
biblical arguments for racial segregation that differentiated the civil rights
era from the antebellum era and that helped ease the way to a more egalitarian
society, once the "the folk theology of segregation" (229), which had never been
more than casually biblical, gave way. In other words, once conservatives
accepted racial equality—which is demonstrably more prominent in Scripture than
racial inequality—it may actually have facilitated the conservative confidence
in following the letter of Scripture on questions of gender and the family.
Thus, Harvey's prediction—"Later generations seem as likely to look upon gender
restrictions with the same regret as evangelicals ponder the history of
proslavery and pro-apartheid theology" (250)—may rest upon an equation between
proslavery and pro-apartheid that literal believers in the Bible reject. The
distinction between proslavery (as possibly biblical) and pro-apartheid (as
anti-biblical) takes race out of the picture and may facilitate a more
self-conscious biblicism about other areas of life.

I do appreciate the concluding words of the review:

It is a mark of the care with which Freedom's Coming has been researched
and written that it can give rise to such quibbles. This is a fine book that,
especially for its chronological breadth, should be a most useful guide for many
years to come.

A few years ago I reviewed David Chappell's Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Decline of Jim Crow and addressed some similar issues in looking at his treatment of religion and southern segregationism. By his accounting, religion was a weak and ultimately ineffectual prop for segregation, in comparison especially to the strong foundation religion provided for proslavery thought. My response:

In brief, I believe that Chappell's focus on segregationist thought focuses too much on a relatively few ministers, who did in fact produce some pretty idiotic tracts, and not enough on the pervasiveness of the white southern obsession with "purity," which ultimately drew from deep religious roots. This makes the triumph of the movement more, rather than less, remarkable, and thus ultimately buttresses the argument of the first half of this book better than Chappell himself does.

Jane Dailey's piece (pdf format) mentioned above is highly recommended and already standard reading on this topic as well. Her point is argued skillfully:

It was through sex that racial segregation in the South moved from being a local social practice to a part of the divine plan for the world. It was thus through sex that segregation assumed, for the believing Christian, cosmological significance. Focusing on the theological arguments wielded by segregation's champions reveals how deeply interwoven Christian theology was in the segregationist ideology that supported the discriminatory world of Jim Crow. It also demonstrates that religion played a central role in articulating not only the challenge that the civil rights movement offered Jim Crow but the resistance to that challenge.

New and forthcoming books by Joseph Crespino, Carolyn Dupont, and others should take this debate to a new level, as they are examining the question in specific local contexts -- Mississippi in particular in the case of Crespino and Dupont. Seth Dowland's dissertation at Duke -- "Christianity and Masculinity on Tobacco Road: Gender, Order, and the Bible in the South, 1965-2000" -- follows the story through the last few decades of the twentieth century; he has some excellent chapters on the rise of Christian academies and the struggle of conservatives against school texts. The theme of all this recent work is about the rise of grassroots conservatism in the South leading to the coalescing of the religious right as a power in the region. This is a topic sure to interest historians for years to come. The history of conservatism is "in" right now, and that's a good thing.


Curtis Freeman said…

We've never met, but I'm a frequent reader of your work. I'm interested in particular in the problem Noll raises and which you raise (conversely) in Chappell. I've just finished a long article in which I think I've shown Chappell has overstated his case, in particular about the use of the old Hamite myth. In fact I found numbers of instances. My article deals with three Southern Baptist preachers, W.A. Criswell, Carlyle Marney, and Wes Shrader. I'm convinced that the Hamite myth didn't have to be invoked directly to conjure up its powers. I remember sitting in a barber chair in the late 1960s when the barber (and boys Sunday School teacher at the Baptist church) conjured up the spirit of Ham. It was my initiation into the cult of white supremacy, otherwise known as Southern religion. In looking back on that experience it strikes me that the power resided in the sense of moral superiority that the myth gave white Southern Christians. This moral leverage was grounded on sexuality -- black folks were morally degraded. The myth was far more supple than Chappel realizes. I'll be happy to pass along the article. It would be helpful as I'm still searching for a journel to submit it to. Thanks for your good work, and for promoting Seth's research. I'm on his committee. It's going to be an excellent piece.
Seth Dowland said…
Noll's point is an interesting one -- he posits a continuity between slavery and gender hierarchy but claims that support for segregation was fundamentally different than support for either slavery or for patriarchy. In short, racial segregation didn't have the biblical mandate that slavery or patriarchy seemed to. (This is a point Chappell raises, as well.) Like both Paul and Curtis, I'm suspicious of this claim, mostly because it undervalues the unspoken support for segregation that emanated from many white southern churches. Moreover, the prominence of "purity" (a la Jane Dailey or Charles Marsh) in southern white churches reveals the coded support these churches provided Jim Crow.

Yet I think we ought not to dismiss Noll's point completely. So many white southerners recount that they "never knew any better" when discussing their previous support for Jim Crow. (See Jerry Falwell's autobiography for a great example of this.) Once the civil rights movement exposed the moral bankruptcy of segregation, many of these southerners abandoned (formal) support of segregation rather quickly (as seen in Chappell). Morevoer, few of them saw (or see) support for patriarchy as consistent with support for Jim Crow. Noll suggest that their reading of scripture shows one (patriarchy) to be divinely inspired and the other (segregation) to be man-made folly. I'm wary of dismissing this line of interpretation out of hand, even though it may invite some revisionist history (by allowing white southerners to deny that a similar theology to the one that propped up segregation is now supporting patriarchy).

Even so, I ultimately think there are too many parallels between segregationist theology and biblical arguments for patriarchy to suggest discontinuity between the two. Decades from now, white evangelicals may or may not view the gendered order many promote today as anachronistic, but they should grapple a bit more with the historical resonance between many anti-feminist (and anti-homosexual) campaigns and earlier support for segregation.

p.s. Thanks to both Curtis and Paul for their endorsement of my work! The full title of my dissertation is "Christianity and Masculinity on Tobacco Road: Gender, Order, and the Bible in the South, 1965-2000."
Paul Harvey said…
Curtis: Thanks -- please do send along the article, I'll be happy to give it a read (click on my profile for my web page, email address, etc). YOu should consider submitting it to the Journal of Southern Religion ( Anyway, I'd like to read it -- I wrote in chapter 5 of Freedom's Coming about what I called the "folk theology" of segregation, which included the kind of unconscious rendering of biblical stories in everyday life, such as what you recount here.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Seth. I'm still mulling over Noll's critique. My initial reaction is basically this: I accept that one cannot parallel pro-slavery or pro-segregationist theology with genuine (albeit patriarchal) moral concerns of the "family value" stripe. My point, rather, is that proslavery thought imparted a certain kind of European conservative sense of order and hierarchy into southern thought, and that has been transmitted to different issues in more contemporary times.
Curtis Freeman said…
Seth makes a good point. In the June 12 issue of The Christian Century, Will Willimon does the same. It's his story of when Jerry Falwell came to Duke. I won't ruin the punch line, but Falwell hoisted the tongue-clucking crowd on their own petard. This underscores the complexity of how race matters work. I am impressed by the number of African American students at Liberty and Regent universities as in pentecostal and charismatic churches which are by and large on the "family values" side of politics. Yet there is no doubt that some of the deeper institutional issue of segregation get repressed. This again underscores the complexity of race and religion which keeps folks like us busy. You can read the Century article on the web at the link below.