PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

The South’s Tolerable Alien: Roman Catholics in Alabama and Georgia, 1945–1970

by Andrew S. Moore

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007

xii + 210 pages. Notes, bibliographic references, and index

$35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-3212-8

The “Christ-haunted” South has not always been so simply divided between white and black, as a number of recent studies of race and religion in the South have shown. Eliza R. L. McGraw’s Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness (2005) demonstrates how the physical presence of Jews in the South, coupled with representations of Jews in the Southern Protestant theological system, effectively undermined the ability of the white South to portray itself as a monolithic whole, while Michael Phillips’s White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001 (2006) details the means by which various non-black minorities—most notably Jews and Hispanics—struggled for the privileges that being seen as white would confer. In All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945–1970, Alan Scot Willis (2004) looks at how the duality of Christianity versus communism slowly moved to the forefront of the thinking of Southern Baptist leaders, even ahead of the traditional black-white dualism, much to the chagrin of some believers.

Adding yet another piece to our increasingly multifaceted view of this American region is Andrew S. Moore’s The South’s Tolerable Alien, which examines the place that Catholics held in the predominately evangelical Protestant world of Alabama and Georgia—a place that, ironically enough, was fairly precarious until the advent of the modern civil rights movement. But Moore’s study is not just a record of anti-Catholicism, for he goes deeper, trying to discover what being Catholic meant to those within this marginalized church, especially as reforms of the Second Vatican Council—and with them, new understandings of such stalwart concepts as “Church” and “justice”—found their way down to the level of individual parishes. This book proves to be a great contribution to the study of American Catholicism and Southern history, the intersection of which reveals the tensions of church and state, culture and conscience, that have been present all throughout the course of the American experiment.

Moore begins by examining the role of Catholics as an “other” in the South, noting that anti-Catholicism—which, in some respects, rivaled even anti-black sentiment—united “southern white Protestants and gave them common cause with non-southern Protestants,” thus creating “a Protestant heritage that transcended regional identity” and even denominational differences (11). In response, Southern Catholics “accepted their outsider status out of necessity and drew on the traditions and doctrines they shared with Catholics everywhere to reinforce their religious identity” (17). Given this wider identification, the sacred space of the neighborhood parish never became as central to Catholic identity in the South as it was the North. As anti-communism rose as the rallying cry for American society, Protestants sought to equate the hierarchical Catholic Church with communism, given its supposed foreign allegiances and its anti-democratic spirit; in turn, Southern Catholics painted their theological nemeses with the same brush, labeling Protestantism a stepping stone to the secularism that pervades communist societies. Christ the King observances became focal points around which, especially in the 1950s, Southern Catholics could exhibit their patriotic and masculine spirit.

When the modern civil rights movement got underway, it brought, in the minds of many Southerners, a new “outside agitator” enemy to the region. “In such an environment,” Moore notes, “religious differences were muted in favor of a concerted effort to defend the South from federal intervention to force integration. Indeed, any Protestant attack of a Catholic was more likely to come in protest of support for integration than for Catholicism’s sake” (63–64). Three of the book’s six chapters constitute specific case studies of how the civil rights movement divided Southern Catholics: first, there is a brief account of Father Albert S. Foley’s career as an activist for social change, followed by studies of how the ecclesial hierarchies of Atlanta and Alabama typified opposite ends of the question of race relations and the Church’s role in society. Moore skillfully uncovers several layers of tension within the experience of Southern Catholicism. Often, white Catholics who had worked so hard to be accepted in a hostile society were resistant to any stance that would endanger their social gains and so defined themselves by culture more than religion: “As the drama of the black freedom struggle intensified in the 1960s, it was more important for many white Catholics that they were white and members of the majority who sought to defend segregation” (84). The idea of the unchanging Church as an agent of social change struck many Catholics as an alien notion, and a number could not comprehend why it was that achieving models of integration was no longer as good as simply having separate black parishes. Black Catholics, on the other hand, found they had brethren in other denominations participating more fully in the freedom struggle, thus reinforcing black over Catholic identity; many African Americans thus resisted merging their parishes with white parishes.

The last chapter looks at the effects of the Second Vatican Council on Southern Catholics. While the Catholic Church’s official embracing of the ideals of integration drove away some, the slow pace of achieving those ideals dispirited others, especially those charged by the excitement of Vatican II. Given new conciliar definitions of Church as the people of God, many religious people, both male and female, “pushed the challenge to accepted authority” to its extreme end, rejecting “the exclusive religious claims of the Roman Catholic Church” in favor of a broad ecumenism (148). Given their positions as appointees of the bishop, rather than as a selections of their congregations, many priests were protected from parish disapproval and so could more forcefully advocate for change than their Protestant counterparts—a situation which further affected the relationship many laypeople had with their church for good or ill. A number felt themselves beset by the forces of change in almost all spheres of their lives.

“The civil rights movement changed the South and the Catholic Church,” notes Moore. “It linked Catholics to southern culture in a way not previously experienced, even as that culture was undergoing changes from which it would not recover” (161). The South’s Tolerable Alien is a record of that interaction between faith and the world at large as it affected a regional religious minority. It deliciously complicates our view of Southern history and gives insight into current religious and political trends, such as why the conservative realignment in this country has been predominately ecumenical, with Baptists standing alongside Catholics to advocate for or against certain issues. This is a brief but fantastic book that will shape our study of religion and regional culture for years to come.

References Cited

McGraw, E. 2005. Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press

Phillips, M. 2006. White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Willis, A. S. 2004. All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945–1970. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.


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