Reading Charles Reagan Wilson’s “Judgment & Grace in Dixie”

Few things define Southern culture like our habit of transposing religion onto anything from government policies and business models to baby names and decorated tote-bags. Whether somebody dies, travels, or takes a math test, someone is bound to remark, “I’ll say some prayers for you.” When a candidate wants to get elected, he makes sure to call himself a “Christian conservative.” When we see people doing something regrettable, we say, “Bless their hearts.” These days, we even have Bible-centered crossfit and born-again gun clubs. To outsiders – and even some insiders – it may seem unnecessary, or even incompatible, but it’s part of our “popular religion” and our “civil religion.”

It’s these themes that Charles Reagan Wilson explored in his 1997 book Judgment & Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis, published by the University of Georgia Press. The essay collection’s central themes are how Southern, mostly Protestant Christianity makes its way out the church door and into so many other areas of life. The book is now twenty-five years old, but author Charles Reagan Wilson may still be recognizable to some as the (now retired) director the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss or as the co-editor of the 1989 Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Though the title sounds ominously academic and analytical, like it would be to akin to Samuel S. Hill’s Southern Churches in Crisis, the subtitle “Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis” and a cover photo from Tom Rankin’s Sacred Space lets the reader know that this book will carry them in another direction.  

The concepts of “popular religion” and “civil religion” tie in heavily to our beliefs, myths, and narratives in the South. Distinct from religion, the concept of “popular religion” describes “spiritual phenomena mostly outside formal church institutions, transmitted through nonecclesiastical channels, and concerned especially with specific outcroppings of the supernatural in the secular world.” Beyond that, Wilson writes near the end of his introduction, “One example of the complex tie between ‘official’ religion and ‘popular’ religion is civil religion, the close relationship between nation and religion, or, in this case, region and religion.” He begins that introduction with the idea that Southerners have long perceived our region to be “God’s project,” a place where special work is being done here on Earth, which is a sentiment not exactly shared by other Americans living to our north and west. If Wilson is right, though, and we really do believe that, all I can say: bless our hearts. 

A greater truth seems, to me, to be that we have a peculiar, and sometimes interesting way of carrying our prayer life into communal life. In the region’s former incarnation as a rural farming culture, the church was the gathering place, a reprieve from isolation and hard labor, and a place where hopes were explored and expressed. Though that centrality has been diminishing since mid-century, it remains prevalent. I can remember being a kid in the ’80s whose family didn’t go to church, and though it wasn’t enough to make us pariahs, it was a stigma. “What d’ya mean, you don’t go to church?” people would sometimes ask me. “I don’t know, we just don’t go,” that’s all I could reply. My grandmother was a regular in the pews of a Baptist church near our house, and we sometimes went with her, but it never felt good or right or welcoming to me. While that upbringing was difficult in its own way at the time, that outsider status also gave me a distinct perspective on Southern religion: I’m not mystified by it. I didn’t grow up with the notion that you shouldn’t argue with a preacher. I paid real attention to the Bible for the first time in a pair of college courses on the Old and New Testaments. I still, to this day, don’t know the words to any hymns by heart. I get what people are trying to do when they say, “Have a blessed day,” but I tend to think that whether we’re blessed is not really our choice. 

So, Wilson’s book, which I had not read previously, struck me as one I should read, if I were going to take on a project in the vein of Nobody’s Home. Not because I’m not religious in the traditional Southern sense – no book could instill that in a person – but because Wilson carries these religious sensibilities over into other matters: football, fiction, art, books. I’ll be honest that I skipped the mini-chapter on church fans, since those don’t interest me, and the one on Elvis, since he was never really one of my favorites. What interests me more is how this melange of cultural fodder has thrived for so long.

Early in the first chapter, Wilson addresses what is pervading about Southern religion but also what bothered me when I was young: “the orthodoxies of southern religious traditionalism.” His use of the word ‘orthodoxy’ implies something more than a norm, something assumed not to be just the way we do things but the right way to do things. Like a good academic, he lists the characteristics of Southern religion includes first and foremost, “Protest dominance,” followed by an “evangelical nature,” “Fundamentalism,” “moralism,” and “expressiveness,” adding later in the chapter, “a good deal of authoritarianism.” I recognized them all and went, Yep. Wilson reminds us, too, that the cultural and economic forces of the late twentieth century were powerful ones, but not enough to cause a “withering away.” No, the hardcore evangelicals hunkered down – think Roy Moore – refusing with prototypical Southernness to yield to what was perceived as decadent.

In the second chapter, Wilson gets a bit more familiar, to me, in his discussions of a southern culture where the Confederate flag was not associated with the “Lost Cause” but with The Dukes of Hazzard and where teenagers knew “more about Madonna than about Robert E. Lee.” Here, Wilson brings in that giant of Southern history George Tindall, who “described myths as mental pictures summing up a people’s experiences,” and who “argues that the South is especially given to myths because they appeal to the Southerner’s love of concrete images and dramatic stories.” Crossing the difficult terrain of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan into “the Lost Cause as entertainment,” we’re shepherded to another conundrum: “the myth of the biracial South,” a “liberal dream” he calls it. Why a dream? Because of “popular religion.” Southern liberals, including Civil Rights activists, used the language and stylings of black evangelical Protestants in their logic and rhetoric, but resistant whites, racial segregation was rooted from the longstanding evangelical belief that the “Southern way of life” was God’s way. So, an integrated Southern society tested both sides: could Southern religion pave the way for racial harmony? could opposing myths be reconciled or overcome? 

The chapters that follow get subject-specific, in order: Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, William Faulkner, visionary art, church fans, country music, books, Dallas churches, beauty queens, and Elvis Presley. Most of these are pretty familiar to folks like me, over forty. For those of us who experienced the twentieth century, Bear Bryant was more than a coach, William Faulkner was more than a writer, and Elvis Presley was more than a singer. What else does one say? For me, Wilson’s chapter “The South’s Torturous Search for the Good Books” went into a subject I hold most dear. About the Southern tendency away from intellectualism, he writes,

Books could be dangerous, they had power, perhaps they were drugs. Efforts were made to prevent their impact in a region obsessed through much of its history with defining orthodoxies that should not be questioned by new ideas contained within the bindings of books.

On the one hand, the South had the nation’s first university press – at North Carolina – but on the other hand, it lagged in literacy and the establishment of public libraries. So, what was the deal? 

The problem is that when orthodoxies are defined rigidly, the diversity of books and their ideas valued by a free society become unwelcome, and the South through much of its history was a society held in the grip of orthodoxies to be questioned only at profound risk.

When I read that passage, I think I remember dropping the book, standing up, and applauding. As far I’m concerned, this “suspicion of books,” rooted in deeply held myths and narratives, stands in opposition to intellectual curiosity, to healthy inquiry, and ultimately, to progress. In terms of the “popular religion,” questioning anything becomes questioning God. Wilson writes late in the chapter about Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’ Connor, and Will D. Campbell, all of whom challenged orthodoxies in their own ways, and all of whom also made significant contributions to Southern culture through their un-orthodoxy.

In his next to last chapter, Wilson addresses a problem we’re still facing today: the meaning of common Southern symbols. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement and integration, symbolism became one front in an ongoing culture war over the meaning of the past. And in the South, the past is everything. By mid-1990s standards, Wilson’s view was progressive yet deferential, acknowledging that the history that had been previously understood separately would have to be understood together. As he commented the dueling interpretations, I was pleased to see this statement from him, near the end of the chapter: “Memorializing heroes should not lead to a mindless mythology.” It was interesting to read his words at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is ascending and when Confederate statues are being toppled. Having the hindsight that Wilson didn’t have in 1995, we now know that modern history would not favor the neo-Confederate narratives that kept the statues in place in the 1980s and 1990s. About the “mindless mythology,” the jury is still out.

The final chapter, on photographer Tom Rankin’s Sacred Spaces, has Wilson discussing African-American culture and religion right before he closes out. Here, he only devotes a scant few pages to the complicated subjects of race, ritual, place, iconography, and meaning, which was kind of disappointing. Then, a short afterword, and out.  In that afterword, he writes,

The symbols of twentieth-century popular religion in the South show the seeming contradictions in regional social psychology. How does one reconcile black people and white people, rich and poor, agrarian and industrial, rural and urban, glamour belles and saintly women, lost causes and civil rights, folk religion and ecclesiastical workshop?

It’s not clear how, Wilson concludes. There are so many things to consider.

In my work as a writing teacher, I tell my students that great literature often leaves us with more questions than answers. After reading Judgment & Grace in Dixie, I’ve got a lot to think about, but also more to go on. In this third decade of the twenty-first century, I spend a lot of time with people who never saw a single day of the twentieth, and I witness the process of myths dying and narratives changing. When I was growing up in Alabama, Bear Bryant was the undisputed greatest coach of all-time, a man so tough he got his nickname from wrestling a bear. Today, younger Bammers feel that way about Nick Saban, the greatest du jour. Wilson writes about Bryant’s infamously ornery personality, which I’m sure doesn’t translate for a generation that frowns on both bullying and dehydration.

And there’s William Faulkner. I’ll grant that Faulkner came into my life after college, when I actually had time to read and education enough to read well. What’s striking to me, though, in regards to Tindall’s “mental pictures summing up a people’s experiences,” is: when I tell my students about Faulkner’s status among Southern writers, they don’t know who he is and don’t care. Why would they? He died in 1962, before their parents were born, and he wrote about a South that they can’t fathom. These twenty-first century digital babies find “Barn Burning” confusing and “A Rose for Emily” disgusting. 

But I don’t get upset with them, for reasons that relate to Wilson’s chapter on visionary art. As teenagers, we used to ride up to WC Rice’s Victory Cross Garden to drink and smoke and freak-out whatever new girls we were dating (or trying to). When I went there, I didn’t see “visionary art.” I saw something to do on Friday night when nothing else was going on. Rice’s several-acre spectacle didn’t make me want to find Jesus. It made me want to point and gawk. We went to the “house of crosses” for the same reason that the teenagers in Dazed and Confused went to the moon tower— which was exactly what WC Rice was urging people not to do. 

Times change. Myths and narratives do, too, as the “popular religion” evolves to embrace new historical circumstances. From his symbolism chapter, Charles Reagan Wilson seems to see it that way, too. Looking back on this twenty-five-year-old book and comparing it to my current experience, I found that the arbiters of truth either fall by the wayside or become the stuff of a classroom syllabus. Figures that once altered the course of culture become names that, when spoken, evoke the response, “Oh, I think my grandmother likes him.” The “generation coming on” will prefer the new, adapt some myths to suit their situations, and abandon other myths as no longer useful, yet their myths will still have tendrils reaching back into ours for sustenance: “My mama always told me . . . ,” they’ll say to their friends and then to their children, who’ll wonder about what kind of people we were. And then, we’ll become myths, too.

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