Patriotism Black and White

The Color of American Exceptionalism

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Nichole R. Phillips
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , December
     388 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony C. Siracusa is Assistant Director of the Collaborative for Community Engagement at Colorado College.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nichole R. Phillips is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Culture at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University.


Nichole R. Phillips, Associate Professor in the Practice of Sociology of Religion and Culture; and Director of Black Church Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Patriotism Black and White: The Color of American Exceptionalism uncovers the microstructural and cultural realities that showcase the communal effects of America’s War on Terror and the election of Barack Obama on rural and Southern dwellers. The following questions are the focus of the book. In an age of terrorism, global reordering, and social ruptures, what is the role of public theology and civil religion in producing a religious vision of the good society? How will the United States define itself? Who are we, as Americans? And what makes for a just and good American society alongside growing nationalism and pluralism?

To answer these questions, I argue for the strength of an American civil religion as the religious dimension of American public life that is conceived less as a single template or fixed foundation for moral life. It frames and accommodates multivocal moral arguments (especially during times of national crisis) because it extends through multiple moral traditions, practices and institutional arrangements (see chapter 9). Recognizing how an American public defines the “greatness” of America in particular historic moments, I additionally argue for the indisputable noble aspects of American exceptionalism—the sovereignty of the people, the rule of law, and securing rights that have worked in unison to subordinate political conflict to constitutional jurisprudence. These first-rate values have protected the United States from many political catastrophes that have plagued other great nations (see chapter 2 for an abbreviated history of American exceptionalism).

Such contentions partially become the basis of a “new” American exceptionalism. Nevertheless, when American exceptionalism encounters political and religious realms, the most noble civil religious and exceptionalist traditions can be transgressed and thwarted. Throughout the text, I consistently argue for differentials in racial experiences and perspectives (i.e., racialization) among these white and black rural dwellers. As well, I critique based on these different and distinct racial experiences. That is the book’s contention: that racial politics and a racial state (i.e., the United States) as well as war conditions and the election of Barack Obama, contribute to shifting interpretations of what it means to be American and to exceptionalist notions of nationhood. All of which provides a trajectory for where we are now, under the Trump Administration. 

The re-emergence of nativism and a triumphalist variant of American exceptionalism also gives evidence of this, particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and in light of his color-coded and politically-laden shibboleth, make America great again, that draws on nostalgia for its effect (see chapter 2). This present national mode has engendered a crisis in American national identity.

Siracusa captures few aspects of the text, missing many by a long shot. For instance, Siracusa questions the degree to which the story is solely a southern story. In fact, it is a southern story based on four years of ethnographic research in a rural, Southern community. Yet, it is more. Drawing on anthropologist William Lloyd Warner’s scholarship and community studies, I argue for the nature of symbolic life in this country, despite variations. Although my research was conducted in one community, the basic meanings of our secular and religious symbols remain equal throughout all regions. In short, examining the symbolic life of singular regions opens the way to interpreting and understanding the religious and civic behavior of Americans in all regions (see chapter 1). That is the rule of thumb for ethnographic research: the local represents the global. However, even sociologists and anthropologists conjecture limits to the global or making global statements.

Also clear is Siracusa’s area of expertise, history. History informs and shapes Patriotism Black and White. The book is written for an audience that appreciates historical perspective. However, the book is an interdisciplinary, empirical study attempting to answer questions about regional and American national identities from the dimensions of patriotism, social conflict and the politics of death. For these reasons, I treat the labor of rural Americans (see chapters 8 and 9) in relationship to the military industrial complex (see chapter 5 and 6) because the politics of war and death (see chapter 1) are subjects. Still, the book is not necessarily a history text.

Siracusa uses this review to give free advertisement to the history books he has read. Kudos to those scholars and authors. This story of rural and southern whites and blacks in wartime conditions remains part of the fabric of the American story, pushing beyond the boundaries of “the South.” Readers should appreciate their story, as such. In close, Siracusa makes mention of a Perry in his review. By the way, who is Perry? (Or are you referring to me, Phillips?)

(Ed. note: The review text has been updated to correct the spelling of the author's name. We sincerely regret the error.)



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