Patriotism Black and White
The Color of American Exceptionalism
- ISBN: 9781481309578
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: December 2018
In Patriotism Black and White: The Color of American Exceptionalism, Nichole R. Phillips grapples with the question of what it means to be an American through the prism of church life and civic identity in the rural south. This study focuses on two churches in the West Tennessee town of Bald Eagles—Bald Eagles United Methodist Church, a primarily white and aging congregation, and Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, a congregation made up almost exclusively of African American members. Relying primarily on interviews with more than eighty congregants at the two churches, Phillips analyzes sermons, symbols, rituals, and events—often narrating her analysis in the first person.
Phillips argues that despite the complex ways in which race informs difference between these two rural congregations, both communities believe a core US value is the right to public expression and dissent. Phillips calls this shared civic creed a “new” form of American exceptionalism; a right to be preserved “regardless of racial group” (xv). A major goal for Phillips is redefining American exceptionalism as a shared civic creed of public engagement across difference, one that can move the nation from making America “great again” to “make America better again” (291).
The challenge with this type of argument, particularly for historians of race and religion in the modern United States, is that it is difficult to find a period where we see sufficient evidence that America was “better.” To use but one example, after white Americans publicly lynched black people in America for decades, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s effort to “redeem the soul of America” was met with white violence and hostility at every turn, culminating in King’s death at the hands of an assassin on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Further, reclaiming the idea of American exceptionalism as a positive and oppositional formulation to “Make America Great Again” requires extracting the phrase from its freighted meanings—both past and present. American exceptionalism in the first-half of the 20th century seemed often to underpin a nativism asserting a white nation’s manifest destiny to exercise dominion over non-white peoples, both at home and abroad. In the decades after World War II, American exceptionalism often served as fodder for Cold Warriors. In a post-Soviet Donald Trump epoch, American exceptionalism has returned to its white nativist roots with two key differences: in the Trump era, our exceptional power seems to derive from unparalleled military might rather than primarily “ideals;” and this power is directed at destroying the bedrock of a postwar global order defined by multilateralism, atlanticism, pan-pacific partnerships, free trade, and liberal democratic sovereignty.
Moreover, this book does not engage with the raft of historical works that explain the wider implications of the rise of Christian evangelicalism alongside the development of the most powerful military industrial complex in the history of the world. For example, Phillips argues that churchgoers in Bald Eagles forged a “civic Americanism” by combining civic and religious symbols in the funerary rites for their slain soldiers, deriving meaning from the local soldiers ‘blood sacrifice’ in this way. Yet as the historian Michael Sherry has shown in In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (Yale University Press, 1997), the vast majority of Americans and their families have remained physically untouched by the continuing military deaths meted out overseas—particularly since the end of the Vietnam era—and yet, almost every American has been impacted by the economic expansion driven by the ceaseless military conflicts abroad. How, then, should we understand the particular experience of the white and black parishioners in Bald Eagles amidst this broader American reality?
A partial answer to this question might come through thinking about the way in which the character of labor in rural America has changed over the last forty years. The sociologist Wanda Rushing deals specifically with this issue in West Tennessee in Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), suggesting that the globalizing forces Phillips cites pushed manufacturing and industrial jobs out of rural West Tennessee. In Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (New Press, 2001), Jefferson Cowie follows an RCA manufacturing plant that moved, first from New Jersey to West Tennessee, and ultimately to Mexico, explaining the impacts on both the domestic labor movement and the personal fortunes of laboring Americans. Future scholarship might examine how rural religious people are finding meaning amidst the remaking of their economic fortunes.
There is also a question about the degree to which the story Phillips is telling is, in fact, a southern story. Phillips uses the term “southern evangelical religion” throughout the text as a stable category, claiming that in the decades following the Civil War, the cult of the “Lost Cause” emerged as a civil religion which bound southerners together in a common commitment to the social order of white supremacy. Yet scholars of slavery such as Walter Johnson in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Belknap Press, 2013), Ed Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014), and Sven Beckertin Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf, 2014) have documented extensively that ways in which the entire nation was bound up in slavery—challenging the idea that we should conceive of slavery as an exceptional system in which the South alone was imbricated. In In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2009), Joe Crespino suggests that in the 20th century, American politics became increasingly “southernized,” as race became the primary crucible in national politics. Most recently, Marcus Hunter and Zandria Robinson have further challenged the notion of an exceptional south in Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life (University of California Press, 2018), creating what they call “the new black map of America,” and arguing that everywhere between Canada and Mexico is South given the politics of race, religion, and culture so commonly ascribed to the US South are in evidence across the United States.
What is at stake for Phillips in claiming a “southern evangelicalism” rather than thinking in broader terms about how American religious sensibilities evolved with the rise of conservative political movements—as well as an increasing rural and urban divides? The benefit of pushing Phillips’ questions beyond “the South” is that Patriotism in Black and White can intersect powerfully with the religious dimensions of America’s shifting civil creeds. By thinking through these questions in the rural spaces of the non-southern states that Trump unexpectedly carried in 2016—includinng Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—such an approach could expand significantly the importance and scale of Phillips’ critical—and timely—query.
Anthony C. Siracusa is Assistant Director of the Collaborative for Community Engagement at Colorado College.Anthony SiracusaDate Of Review:August 28, 2019