"The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in theRural South"
By Paul Hemphill
Free Press, 235 pp.

"Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights"
Gardiner H.Shattuck Jr.
University of Kentucky Press, 312 pp.

"Science, Race and Religion in the American South"
By Lester D.Stephens
The University of North Carolina Press, 344 pp. In his sermons, Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quipping that"eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sundayschool is still the most segregated school of the week." By pointingout the conflict between racism and Christian ideals, King hoped toshame white church leaders into supporting the campaign againstsegregation in the South and racism in the rest of the country.Forty years later, Jim Crow segregation is a memory, and racism hasbecome America's most popular metaphor for evil. Yet King's descriptionof Sunday services remains largely unaltered. Three recently published books focus on the relationship betweenChristianity and race. With King's larger point well on its way tobeing answered, these books answer him on a more particular level abouthow race has shaped our understandings of spirituality and theology. Paul Hemphill's "Ballad of Little River" tells the story of a churchburning in a rural Alabama community where he spent a year on ajournalistic safari. Hemphill, whose previous books have ranged fromtruckers to Cherokee Indians to mayoral politics, traces the complexhistory of the Little River community and tells the often heartbreakingpersonal stories of its members. In so doing, he illuminates how theburning of St. Joe Baptist church came to pass and how it affected theblack and white people of Little River. A group of local white teens, several of whom had recently attended alocal Klan rally, committed the arson of St. Joe's. In the midst of anall-night alcoholic binge, one of the kids suggested that they go "burnthe nigger church." When prosecutors used this statement to exercisethe new hate-crime law, outraged local whites maintained that the crimewas not racist, and that in any case St. Joe's wasn't a real churchanyway. Hemphill uses the trial to illuminate the differing worldviewsof white and black residents. Hemphill is a veteran observer of the blue-collar South, and he is at hisbest in portraying the world of the arsonists. He sympatheticallyportrays the tragic lives of the arsonists by showing the ways thatpoverty, hopelessness, and indifferent parentage contributed to theircrimes. At the same time, he highlights the deep self-delusions ofracism within the white community that blinds them to the humanity oftheir black neighbors.
Gardiner Shattuck's "Episcopalians and Race" studies the historicaltreatment of race by the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the EpiscopalChurch. Although the book covers the period from the Civil War to thepresent, its focus is on the civil-rights era, from the mid-1950s toearly 1970s. Shattuck's central concern is how Episcopal leaders have confrontedracial problems in the United States. But he also gives importantattention to the ways that race has shaped the internal policies of thechurch and led to confusing and contradictory attitudes toward its ownblack members. Shattuck produces a readable account that makes the issues clear withoutoversimplifying. The civil rights struggle was a boom time forreligious activism in social and political questions. Shattuck presentsa convincing argument that the church has a duty to confront pressingsocial issues and shows how liberal Episcopal leaders moved frommoderate to aggressive support for the cause of civil rights. But theauthor demonstrates the pitfalls of activism as well. More conservativeEpiscopalians were deeply embittered by the increasing radicalism ofchurch activists. At the same time, liberal white clergy managed toalienate black laity and clergy by failing to include them in theleadership of church-based civil rights work. The disaffection of thesegroups undermined institutional support for activism and led to acurtailment of civil rights activities. Despite its pessimisticconclusions, "Episcopalians and Race" is a valuable read for those of usconcerned with the church's place in society. While Hemphill and Shattuck deal with matters of considerablecontemporary significance, Lester Stephens takes a considerable leapback into the American past with "Science, Race and Religion in theAmerican South." Stephens' book will particularly appeal to readerswith a theological bent. Stephens looks at the lives and ideas of agroup of natural scientists living in and around Charleston in the 19thcentury. These men become embroiled in a heated debate in which theideas of biblical creation, Darwinian science, racism, and scientificmethod collided explosively. The question at issue: whether black peoplewere human. The majority position, held by Southern, Northern, and British scientists,contended that black people were of a separate species, relying onpseudo-science and a racially deterministic interpretation of Darwin'snatural law. John Bachman, the book's major figure, countered by provingthe scientific claims false while arguing that the Bible maintained theessential unity of the human race. The debates are at once frighteningand fascinating, like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Unfortunately, only two of the book's 12 chapters are devoted tothese theological and scientific debates. The rest are taken up withindividual biographies of the scientists of Charleston, which while goodin their own right, lack the zest of Bachman's battles over religion,race, and science.

Though interesting and thought provoking, these books paint a gloomyportrait of the relationship between religion and race in our society. Time and again they show individuals turning a blind eye to articles ofreligious faith when theology runs afoul of racial presuppositions. Even Shattuck's earnest and well-meaning liberal clergy stumble overpersonal racial demons, even as they struggle against larger societalones. These books remind us that while the Reverend King's fight for ballotboxes and schoolhouse doors has been achieved, his quest for hearts,minds, steeples, and pews remains unfulfilled.

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