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Lauren F. Winner
Diversity Comes to Dixie
Religion and regionalism have been intertwined in America since John Winthrop baptized New England and declared its purposes of God. The Latter-day Saints have dominated Utah and its environs since the nineteenth century. Even Garrison Keillor's splintered Brethren seem to embody a region. But no regional identity has been more bound up with religion than that of the American South. It has become a sine qua non—or a clichae, depending on your perspective—for those discussing southern identity to quote Flannery O'Connor's description of the region as "Christ-haunted." And with good reason.
For decades, however, scholars ignored southern religion. If, as Catherine Clinton has claimed, women are the half-sisters of southern history, then religion has long stood as the poor cousin. Ten years ago, John B. Boles could only modestly report that "the issuance since 1980 of at least a dozen books on southern religious history demonstrates the current interest in a topic sadly neglected in the scholarship until recently." Today, it is fair to say that southern religion is a cottage industry.
Seven recently published books on southern religion share two elements. One element seems obvious, the other less so. With the exception of two essays in Religion in the Contemporary South, these books are entirely devoted to Christianity, six of the seven to evangelical Protestantism. This perhaps cames as no surprise, since poeple usually mean Christianity when they speak of "religion in the South." As Samuel S. Hill put it, "Any real acquaintance with southern religious history equips a person with the knowledge that the evangelical family of Protestant Christianity has long been the region's largest and most influential heritage." Which is what renders the second shared component of these books so remarkable: commentators on southern religion have, without quitting their devotion to Protestantism, caught up with the rest of the world and turned their attention to diversity.