James Hudnut-Beumler on Religion in the Now South
Date: May 27th, 2018

When you think if Christianity in the U.S. South, images of Southern Baptist congregations, conservative politics, and even snake-handling may come to mind.  But Prof. James Hudnut-Beumler, the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, reveals that the spiritual tapestry is much more nuanced than might appear on initial glance.  Prof. Hudnut-Beumler joins us to talk about his new book Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table and reveals how several historical traditions have persisted in the region while significant transformations are also taking place.

We commence with a discussion of a definition of “the South,” which can be viewed geographically (starting just below Northern Virginia, running down to the top portion of Florida, and extending westward to Arkansas and encompassing the southern portions of Indiana and Illinois) and spiritually (those areas with a majority Southern Baptist population).  Jim explains how this decade-long process took him on a “r0ad trip” around the region to experience the lives and institutions of those living in what he calls the “Now South,” a region with deep roots to its “Old Time Religion” past, but which is also changing in surprising ways.  Looking at the historical roots first, we discuss how religion, food, and hospitality are intimately linked via kinship networks and a concern over scarcity being a daily lived experience.  Food and visitation are viewed as an expression of love for folks who are ill, imprisoned, or otherwise facing difficult times.  Jim also notes that food and hospitality also becomes a basis for various types of social activism as such community involvement is often viewed as a measure of piety.  Sometimes such activism can take on hard-nosed policies towards drug addicts who are allowed assistance only if they quickly accept Jesus, or in more open terms that seek to get mentally ill individuals the help they need.  We also chat about how Pentecostalism, technically a very small fraction of Southern Christians, has influenced the Christianity of the region, often leading to “Bapticostal” congregations that call their ministers bishops and have multiple offerings.  Religion also manifests itself along racial lines in the South, as one might expect, and Jim talks about religiously-infused racial histories can wound but also offer up possibilities for forgiveness.  He raises the horrific shooting at the Charleston Emmanuel AME Church in 2015 as an example of these racial divides and how the power of forgiveness is used not necessarily to “forgive and forget,” but to heal tragedies so it doesn’t wound the victims continuously.

The conversation then moves in the direction of the “Now South” and the new trends that have been reshaping the spiritual landscape over the past several decades.  We look at how megachurches are setting new standards of worship not only for congregants in the suburbs, but in smaller rural and urban churches as well.  Jim points out how the growth of homeschooling has responded to the integration of private religious schools (often called “segregation academies”).  The growth of Catholicism with the influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America has also diversified the religious tapestry of the region.  And finally, we discuss the surprising increase in the number of congregations that have taken a welcoming position to the LGBT communities and how it has roiled the waters.  Jim explains that while it is easy to preach hate, the culture is changing via kinship ties and the “power of one” wherein one individual can help to change the views of those around them.  While still a very small minority of churches, the presence of LGBT-friendly congregations indicate progressive steps forward.

We finish off by asking Prof. Hudnut-Beumler what he would tell a younger version of Jim if he had the chance to travel back in time.  The elder Jim provides some interesting words of advice for his younger self recognizing that things you never thought would have made an impression early on often come back to you as new opportunities for exploration and learning.  Recorded: May 25, 2018.


 Prof. Hudnut-Beumler’s bio at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table, by James Hudnut-Beumler.

In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar, by James Hudnut-Beumler.

The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America, edited by James Hudnut-Beumler and Mark Silk.

Looking for God in the Suburbs, by James Hudnut-Beumler.


James Hudnut-Beumler on the History of Church Financing in the US.

Paul Harvey on Religion in the American South.

Lerone Martin on Preaching on Wax and Phonographic Religion.

David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Rights Movement.

Darin Mather on Evangelicals and Racial Attitudes.

Bradley Wright on Religion, Race, and Discrimination.

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