2017-07-12
"The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural 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 Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week." By pointing out the conflict between racism and Christian ideals, King hoped to shame white church leaders into supporting the campaign against segregation in the South and racism in the rest of the country. Forty years later, Jim Crow segregation is a memory, and racism has become America's most popular metaphor for evil. Yet King's description of Sunday services remains largely unaltered. Three recently published books focus on the relationship between Christianity and race. With King's larger point well on its way to being answered, these books answer him on a more particular level about how race has shaped our understandings of spirituality and theology. Paul Hemphill's "Ballad of Little River" tells the story of a church burning in a rural Alabama community where he spent a year on a journalistic safari. Hemphill, whose previous books have ranged from truckers to Cherokee Indians to mayoral politics, traces the complex history of the Little River community and tells the often heartbreaking personal stories of its members. In so doing, he illuminates how the burning of St. Joe Baptist church came to pass and how it affected the black and white people of Little River. A group of local white teens, several of whom had recently attended a local Klan rally, committed the arson of St. Joe's. In the midst of an all-night alcoholic binge, one of the kids suggested that they go "burn the nigger church." When prosecutors used this statement to exercise the new hate-crime law, outraged local whites maintained that the crime was not racist, and that in any case St. Joe's wasn't a real church anyway. Hemphill uses the trial to illuminate the differing worldviews of white and black residents. Hemphill is a veteran observer of the blue-collar South, and he is at his best in portraying the world of the arsonists. He sympathetically portrays the tragic lives of the arsonists by showing the ways that poverty, hopelessness, and indifferent parentage contributed to their crimes. At the same time, he highlights the deep self-delusions of racism within the white community that blinds them to the humanity of their black neighbors. Gardiner Shattuck's "Episcopalians and Race" studies the historical treatment of race by the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Episcopal Church. Although the book covers the period from the Civil War to the present, its focus is on the civil-rights era, from the mid-1950s to early 1970s. Shattuck's central concern is how Episcopal leaders have confronted racial problems in the United States. But he also gives important attention to the ways that race has shaped the internal policies of the church and led to confusing and contradictory attitudes toward its own black members. Shattuck produces a readable account that makes the issues clear without oversimplifying. The civil rights struggle was a boom time for religious activism in social and political questions. Shattuck presents a convincing argument that the church has a duty to confront pressing social issues and shows how liberal Episcopal leaders moved from moderate to aggressive support for the cause of civil rights. But the author demonstrates the pitfalls of activism as well. More conservative Episcopalians were deeply embittered by the increasing radicalism of church activists. At the same time, liberal white clergy managed to alienate black laity and clergy by failing to include them in the leadership of church-based civil rights work. The disaffection of these groups undermined institutional support for activism and led to a curtailment of civil rights activities. Despite its pessimistic conclusions, "Episcopalians and Race" is a valuable read for those of us concerned with the church's place in society. While Hemphill and Shattuck deal with matters of considerable contemporary significance, Lester Stephens takes a considerable leap back into the American past with "Science, Race and Religion in the American South." Stephens' book will particularly appeal to readers with a theological bent. Stephens looks at the lives and ideas of a group of natural scientists living in and around Charleston in the 19th century. These men become embroiled in a heated debate in which the ideas of biblical creation, Darwinian science, racism, and scientific method collided explosively. The question at issue: whether black people were human. The majority position, held by Southern, Northern, and British scientists, contended that black people were of a separate species, relying on pseudo-science and a racially deterministic interpretation of Darwin's natural law. John Bachman, the book's major figure, countered by proving the scientific claims false while arguing that the Bible maintained the essential unity of the human race. The debates are at once frightening and fascinating, like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Unfortunately, only two of the book's 12 chapters are devoted to these theological and scientific debates. The rest are taken up with individual biographies of the scientists of Charleston, which while good in their own right, lack the zest of Bachman's battles over religion, race, and science.

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


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