Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The process whereby the distinctive cultural forms associated with the American South spread to other geographic regions of the United States.

Scholarly attention in the 1970s to the disappearance of regional distinctiveness in the United States—the homogenization of American culture—included examination of how the South was becoming more like the rest of the nation (i.e., more urban, more industrial, more secular, and so on). The South, it was argued, was being absorbed into mainstream American culture. In his book, The Americanization of Dixie (Harper 1974), southern journalist John Egerton also explored the reciprocal influence of southern culture on the rest of the nation, a process he called "the Southernization of America." Egerton suggested that religion was one of the elements of southern culture having a discernable impact on the wider society. He wrote, for example, that Billy Graham "has taken the old-time religion of his native South out into the nation and the world. . . . In doing so, he has firmly established himself as the single most influential figure in what can fairly be called the Southernization of American religion" (p. 195).

In his article "The Southernization of America Religion: Testing a Hypothesis" (Sociological Analysis 1991), Mark A. Shibley undertook a systematic, empirical examination of the Egerton thesis. Using church membership data from the Glenmary Research Center and population and migration data from the U.S. Census, he showed that virtually all the membership growth in evangelical churches during the 1970s could be attributed to growth in historically southern evangelical churches. Moreover, Shibley found that the growth of southern-style religion was especially marked outside the South and corresponds with regions that experienced high levels of in-migration from the South during the same period. Shibley's book, Resurgent Evangelicalism in the United States (University of South Carolina Press 1996), showed that the pattern held through the 1980s, but this more thoroughgoing examination of the southernization thesis, which includes fieldwork in southern churches outside the South, concludes that while southern religion has changed the face of American culture in recent decades, it has itself been fundamentally changed in the process. Ultimately, the southernization concept proved useful in helping to explain the contemporary resurgence of evangelicalism in the United States.

Mark A. Shibley

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