I’ve taught courses on religion in the American South several times. And every time, I’ve used Charles Reagan Wilson’s old standard Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Published in 1980 by the University of Georgia Press, I first read it twenty years later as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University. I remember finding it incredibly engaging, refreshingly lucid, and just plain re(dis)orienting, at least for a southern white boy who spent his childhood in the 1980s reading the 28-volume Time Life series “The Civil War” (“Keep only the ones you want, cancel any time”) and watching Patrick Swayze play with a sword in the 1985 TV-series “North and South.” Today, I consider Baptized in Blood to be a kind of gateway book for students to think critically about the history of southern religion, a way into a world of history and historiography that never ceases to capture my imagination and rattle those deeply embedded (Flannery O’Connor might have said “haunting”) memories of how I once remembered the past.
But this year I replaced Wilson’s Baptized in Blood with Arthur Remillard’s Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era. Also published by the University of Georgia Press, Southern Civil Religions is about how blacks, whites, men, women, northerners, southerners, Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all produced competing visions of the “good society” at the nexus of religion and public life in the New South. In his preface to the 2009 edition of Baptized in Blood, Wilson describes Remillard’s work as “most significant in gently revising Baptized in Blood, decentering the study of civil religion in the South by examining competing moral visions of society in the post-Reconstruction South…. Remillard makes the Lost Cause civil religion, based in the Confederate memory, one of several competing civil religions” by “focus[ing] on moral codes of differing visions of the good society in the South, rather than on the analysis of mythology and ritual that earlier works on the Lost Cause, including Baptized in Blood, present.”
Last week, Art was kind enough to speak to my class via Skype about Southern Civil Religions. It isn’t every day that students get to put a face and a voice to the books they’re forced read. Heck, it’s rare for professors to talk at length with those who write the books that we’re trained to barely skim and confidently deconstruct. I’m sure some of you have already virtually visited classrooms. And if you haven’t, then you should consider it. I, for one, would have loved to hear Wilson talk about Baptized in Blood when I was an undergraduate. Then, as now, I wanted to know more about why people write the books they write and what they might say differently in person than on paper. My students, I found, were no different. The first thing they wanted to know was why Art, a guy from western Pennsylvania, wrote a book about the Gulf South. He had a good answer.