Michael J. Altman on Chad E. Seales’s The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town
The pig is a sacrifice in the American South. Communities form around the sacrificial body of the porcine totems as they roast on large grills at pig pickin’s in church parking lots, city parks, and private backyards. The sauces accompanying the victim express locality, memory, and history. Mustard and vinegar separate the Carolina in the south from its northern neighbor. Ritually prepared and communally consumed, the sacrificial swine produces community, reifies difference, symbolizes place, and endures in memory.
Southerners haven’t always killed and eaten their pigs, though. The Secular Spectacle opens with a scene from a greasy pig competition in Siler City, North Carolina on July 4, 1907. Five men greased up a small pig in front of the Independence Day celebrants and then let it loose. Men and boys took off in pursuit through the public streets of the town. Everyone cheered and everyone rooted for the pig. A century later, the residents of Siler City consumed a dead pig in the privacy of a backyard barbecue. Both pigs brought the community together, both pigs celebrated Independence Day, but the spaces where these pigs took part in the communal spectacle changed. Why did the pig move from the streets to the backyard? Why did he die? And what do these secular spectacles tell us about class, secularism, and religion in the South?
As it has been traditionally rendered, the secularization thesis argues for a history of movement from religion to secularism. The argument is linear and temporal. We used to be religious, and now we are secular. But the story of the pigs shifts secularism from historical time to political space. In Siler City, the Methodist church and the secular Country Club represent social, racial, and economic class, though one is religious and the other secular. This is not the secularization thesis of religion’s death and replacement; secular and religious spaces coexist, and both mediate class, race, and social status. Following the work of John Modern, Tracy Fessenden, and Talal Asad, religion and secularism not only coexist but constitute one another. The country club is secular insofar as it is set apart from the religious church, though both function as white, Protestant, elite, upper-class spaces.
Thus in Siler City, white Protestants wield both the religious and the secular to maintain racial, gender, and economic order within local spaces. Religion and secularism conspire to set apart places, things, and people as sacred. This process of religious and secular sanctification and the construction of secular and religious spaces is bigger than pigs, churches, and country clubs. It extends into the industrialization of the American South, American and Confederate nationalism, the maintenance and policing of civility, privatization of communal ritual, and migration of new communities to the South.
These secular rituals are deeply Durkheimian: ritual and ritual sacrifice hold the power to differentiate the sacred from the secular and to bind together community. The secular and the religious knot around each other through rituals of sacrifice in the small town. During Siler City’s 1901 Fourth of July celebration, the presence of Colonel John Randolph Lane represented the sacrifice of Confederate blood. Lane’s sacrifice sanctified the ritual order of the secular holiday for white Protestants in town. He had been shot through the face at Gettysburg and was left for dead, but he survived. A walking, talking, sacrificial victim, Lane brought the religion of the Lost Cause, a sacred form of Confederate nationalism, into the secular space of the national holiday. Lane sanctified the Fourth of July celebration in the blood of the Confederacy. The parade, the greasy pole and greasy pig competition, and the afternoon baseball game became moments in a sacred ritual that united the white community of Siler City.
By the 1970s, a new secular sacrifice replaced Lane as the Fourth of July celebration moved from the public streets of Siler City to the backyards of private citizens. The greasy pig that ran free in 1901 became the sacrificial victim in a backyard pig pickin’. Following the integration of public schools and the resultant de-segregation of the Fourth of July rituals, elite whites in Siler City moved the ritual to segregated and private space. Two local social and political elites, Tommy Emerson and Dalton Marsh, began hosting a private backyard Fourth of July celebration in the 1970s. This celebration harkened back to the old time celebrations in the streets of Siler City. But there was no Colonel Lane to sanctify it, and the pig did not run. It cooked. The ritual preparation and consumption of the totemic pig replaced the communal ritual of the parade. Having lost control over the secular space of the streets, whites reconstituted sacred secular rituals in private space.
Siler City residents sacrificed more than pigs and soldiers. The newest arrivals to the town, Latino Catholics began an annual Good Friday procession through the streets of Siler City in 1996. A man performing as Jesus would carry a cross through the streets and through the Stations of the Cross. Latino residents of Siler City publicly performed their Catholicism and their difference from their white Protestant surroundings through the ritual performance of Jesus’s sacrifice. When the ritual moved to the driveway of the St. Julia Catholic Church, Jesus’s cross stood where passersby from the highway could easily see it. For white Protestants, this ritual sacrifice, confined to the religious space of the church but visible from the secular street, represented the cult of suffering they believed characterized Latino Catholics. White Protestants combined the religious difference of Latino Catholics with their secular difference as migrant workers. White Protestants saw these Catholic Latinos as “cultural primitives.” Thus, the religious difference between Latino Catholics and white Protestants became “a locative placeholder for secular distinction between migrants and other Americans.”
Whether pig, soldier, or Christ, these sacrifices functioned to maintain sacred order throughout the history of Siler City. Accounts of American religion can be split between those that emphasize “democratization” and those that emphasize authority and institutional power. Against those accounts of American religious history that emphasize a democratization of American Protestantism, Seales presents a picture of white Protestants deploying religion and secularism to maintain order, power, and hierarchy. Setting apart this street, that neighborhood, or these women, white Protestants in Siler City maintained their own elite status and ensured gender and race stayed in order.
The racial and social order maintained by these religious performances and secular projects was established in the antebellum South. On the antebellum plantation, white male superiority organized and policed a social-racial hierarchy believed to be divinely inspired. God entrusted white men with the protection of white women from black men. Blackface minstrelsy at early twentieth-century Fourth of July parades reconstituted this sacred social order and gave white Protestant men a chance to reenact their role as the protector of white women. Replacing symbols of the Confederacy with symbols of American nationalism, blackface shows presented a racialized nationalism that brought the divinely sanctioned order of the antebellum plantation into the secular nationalist holiday of the public streets. Churches and businesses sponsored the parades and their performances: the religious and the secular colluded to sanction and sanctify rituals of white supremacy.
White Protestants also deployed civility as a disciplining mechanism to maintain white supremacy. Drawing on historians, most notably Donald G. Mathews, who have argued that lynching was a Southern religious act, Seales shows how Southern progressives countered the religious performance of “primitive communities” with calls for greater segregation. Progressives argued that black bodies should be set apart and contained with other black bodies. Racial difference and segregation would ensure civility in the community and end the primitive practice of lynching.
Yet civility, the secular cure to the religious disease of lynching, carried its own legal violence. A key example comes from 1962, when white policeman Joe Kucinic shot and killed black resident Melvin Vernell White. At Kucinic’s trial, the mechanism of civility rendered the opinions of black residents as biased emotionalism while projecting white interests and understandings as common sense. Kucinic was given a suspended sentence, placed on probation, and lost his job for killing White. The judge justified his sentencing on the grounds that the shooting was an accident and the Kucinic had not been fully trained for the job. Thus the violent religious performance of lynching became the secular and legal violence of a civility that imagined white bodies as honest and black bodies as untrustworthy.
The racial order of Siler City also functioned to protect white Protestant femininity. Fears of black rapists ignited lynchings. Colonel Lane himself asserted that dead Confederate soldiers sacrificed themselves for the Daughters of the Confederacy, “the tenderest hearts and fairest hands of our Southland.” Even at the private backyard Fourth of July pig pickin’, Seales recounts the story of inadvertently receiving a “lady’s plate” of pork instead of a “man’s plate.” Not only serving size but even the spaces within the backyard party were gendered. The men stood around the barbecue tent preparing the sacrificial meal. The women controlled the dessert tent. The Baptist minister saying a prayer over the meal compared American freedom to homemade ice cream, gendering it feminine because, as Seales points out, “freedom was not spice and vinegar; it was rich and sweet.” The story of Southern secularism is a story of racial and gendered order, because “for southern whites, racial difference was inseparable from gendered difference.”
The example of lynching as religious performance highlights the two questions that haunt the book. Whence religion? Whence the secular? Seales relies on Mathews’s argument that lynchings were religious, and for his part, Mathews relies on lynching mobs’ screams of “Glory to God!” as evidence that lynching is religion. Similarly, Seales relies on Charles Reagan Wilson’s construction of the religion of the Lost Cause to explain how Colonel Lane’s presence sanctified the Fourth of July celebration. But what makes the barbecue tent and its “ritual sacrifice carved with masculine muscle” a secular sacrifice while Colonel Lane is religious? Is the only distinction between the secular segregated Country Club and the religious segregated Methodist Church a steeple and hymn singing? For religion and secularism to be in cahoots, as Seales claims, then they have to be separate. But it is unclear what separates them. Both the secular and the religious spaces and rituals in the book invoke some sort of Durkheimian sacred. But Seales appears to lose his Durkheimian nerve. He does not tell us what makes the pig the secular sacred while the crucified Jesus is the religious sacred. As Durkheim himself reminds us, “a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word anything, can be sacred.” But what makes the sacred religious or sacred? The state? The community? The ethnographer or historian? That remains unclear.
The Secular Spectacle requires a reevaluation of the American South. It contributes an alternative approach to secularism within a regional context. By replacing the secularization thesis with an account of how the secular and the religious rely upon one another, Seales dispels simplistic characterizations of the South as bathed in religion. The South is thoroughly modern and thoroughly secular, but its secularism functions differently. Southern secularism organizes racial and gender difference through spatial relationships. It governs the difference of individual and social bodies within local spaces — the country club and the church, the white business district and the black neighborhood, the public street and the private backyard. It also maintains the gender and racial order of bodies and sanctifies spaces through rituals of sacrifice. Through country clubs and churches, pig pickin’s and parades, the buckle on the Bible Belt is a secular spectacle.
[Hear Art Remillard’s interview with Chad Seales on his book on MRB Radio]