Response to Roundtable on Class
Reading each of these thoughtful, insightful reflections on the relationships between class and religion in the American South has been an enriching and encouraging experience. While it may be true that class is often overlooked as a variable in scholarship on religion, in the South and in the United States more generally, it is here apparent that there are good scholars who are working hard to correct for that error. I am honored to be in the company of Ken Fones-Wolf, Jarod Roll, Alison Collis Greene, and John Hayes in developing a trend toward the recognition of class as important to the study of religion, and in working through the implications of that recognition. We share this interest with other scholars whose work is not focused on the South, such as Heath W. Carter, Janine Giordano Drake, Sean McCloud, Evelyn Savidge Sterne, and more.1
As class becomes more of a focus in scholarship on religion, it also becomes clear that class has many meanings and that there are many perspectives on class (as I pointed out in my initial piece in this forum). It is therefore important for each of us to maintain a critical self-awareness about why class matters in our scholarship, articulating what it is that we hope to accomplish or explore through this variable. For some, it may be fleshing out the historical record. Others may have more political or activist motivations. Still others may be interested in how material circumstances related to work or economy are articulated religiously (or vice versa). Whatever the questions, we all have a lot to learn from each other as we begin to expand the parameters of the study of religion in relation to socioeconomic and material contexts. I like to think that we can build upon each other’s work, pulling it into conversation with our own and pushing it into new areas in a spirit of cooperative scholarship.
I would like to take this opportunity to comment on a few items that especially caught my attention as I read the articles in this issue. First and foremost, I want to thank Ken Fones-Wolf and Alison Collis Greene for reminding me of the excellent work that has been produced on middle class, elite, and bourgeois religion. My criticism that a great deal of religious history has focused upon the middle class without taking that particular socioeconomic location into account in the analysis still stands, I think, but there is certainly a growing body of literature that does take account of the class setting of non-working class religion. This is a welcome development, and a necessary one for fleshing out the importance of class to the study of religion. Nevertheless, I think that there is still a need for more integration of relational perspectives when dealing with class, exploring the ways that individuals and communities in particular class locations identify themselves and represent others with regard to religious and cultural factors. How are religion and class articulated together to construct and express identity and alterity in various times and places?
Greene’s borrowing of Anna Weir Layne’s description of “the inferior class of sharecropper” as “the flotsam and jetsam drifting down the Mississippi” is wonderful, and perhaps inadvertently points to an important set of problems relating to the study of working class religion. It is revealing to recall the maritime definitions of these descriptive terms. While “flotsam” refers to scattered debris from a wrecked ship that drifts around in the water or washes ashore, “jetsam” refers to items or parts of a ship that are intentionally cast overboard to lighten a ship’s load. Describing part of the American population, working or poor, as “flotsam and jetsam” is not only dehumanizing, it also reminds us that many of those described have been intentionally jettisoned, set apart from the larger social body. They have been excluded from the central plot of the American (religious) story. One reason that elites and the middle class have been favored in historical studies, including studies of religion, is because these groups of people left easily accessible records. Workers and poor people and others often did not—or, rather, not in the same way. To access their history scholars have to read documents against the grain for evidence of “flotsam and jetsam,” and they have to seek out those cast off cultural products that have been declared worthless or irrelevant to the story of the middle class or elites. Folksong, oral history, and material culture are some of the products that can begin to reveal the lives of otherwise marginalized individuals and communities. Methods of scholarship that work to analyze and interpret such data are therefore essential tools in the toolbox of studies of class. Also, critical methods that explore the relationships between “flotsam and jetsam” and cultural gatekeepers, including scholars themselves, are necessary.
Jarod Roll explains in his article that he discovered that there was a great deal more to the lives of members of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union than what was revealed in the union’s archived papers. “The organization history quickly broke down,” he writes, as he began to find correlations between STFU membership and participation in emerging sectarian religious communities. What was the connection here? In what ways did this correlation matter? Stretching beyond organization history, Roll reached for language, finding abundant scriptural quotations in archival papers. This led to his decision to explore the cosmologies of the New South’s working people to find the connection between religious and political rebellion. His conclusions are exciting and suggestive for historians of southern labor. Religion also provides idioms, rituals and performance styles, modes of community, and models of self, other, and value that go beyond the intellectual, beyond ways of thinking, into ways of acting and relating. Pentecostalism, for instance, not only provided rebellious theology but also modes of embodiment in relation to power and materiality that merged in sometimes-explosive ways with movements of organized labor. As Ken Fones-Wolf asks, “How did the smells, sounds, and body language of services contribute to and differentiate working-class religious practices?” Extending this question, I would also ask how those visceral aspects of religious practices informed labor and contributed to social struggles.
Conversely, John Hayes brings a different question to his work, asking instead how the material conditions of poverty formed and shaped a “hard, hard religion.” This is a question that interests me very much, and I find Hayes’s analysis helpful. My background in folklore, however, compels me to comment on Hayes’s choice to call the religion of poor people “folk religion.” While this is a common usage, it is also a problematic one. As Leonard Norman Primiano noted in his 1995 critique of the term in Western Folklore, naming something “folk religion” implies a distinction from “official” religion that is empirically unsustainable. “This practice both residualizes the religious lives of believers,” Primiano wrote, “and at the same time reifies the authenticity of religious institutions as the exemplar of human religiosity.”2 When scholars grant institutional (and typically middle class) religious forms the name of “religion,” pure and simple, while also marking religious practices of working and poor people as a special type of religion with the name “folk”—which has a complex history in relation to the construction of the “flotsam and jetsam” mentioned by Greene—the effect is to “normalize” and legitimize the middle class discourse on religion that defines itself as normative. It jettisons the religious lives of working and poor people from the defining center. I think that “hard, hard religion” describes the subject of Hayes’s work more respectfully and accurately. He writes of the hard religion that emerges from a hard life, a grappling with the unyielding solidity of material and structural forces that shape and form individuals and communities and through which they define themselves. It is a form of religious orientation that cuts across racial and regional lines, Hayes says, because it is based on a shared experience. Primiano suggests the term “vernacular” be used rather than “folk,” illuminating the way that all religion is embedded within specific social, historical, cultural, and material contexts. “Vernacular religion” is not a special type of religion, but a method or perspective for studying all religion, wherever it is situated, as it is lived.3 It thus describes a relation, and opens the door to exploring how various vernaculars are related to class experiences.
Finally, this forum suggests the need, and the potential, for increased interdisciplinary work among scholars who are interested in religion and class. I note that I am the sole religious studies scholar among this group of historians, and I am encouraged by the similarities in our interests. I am also aware of the distinctions, as noted by Ken Fones-Wolf, between the conversations going on in labor history, American religious history, and southern history. Historians, though they share a discipline, are often shaped by the discourses of their specializations. My hope is that interdisciplinary conversations might bridge some gaps in knowledge and method, and we might teach and learn from each other to produce more informed and critically aware scholarship. If nothing else, emphasizing class as a category in the study of religion in the early-twentieth century South might open up such conversations.
Heath W. Carter, “Scab Ministers, Striking Saints: Christianity and Class Conflict in 1894 Chicago,” American Nineteenth Century History 11 (Sept. 2010): 321–349; Sean McCloud, Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Evelyn Savidge Sterne, Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); and Sterne, “Bringing Religion into Working-Class History: Parish, Public, and Politics in Providence, 1890–1930,” Social Science History 24 (Spring 2000): 149–182. ↩
Leonard Norman Primiano, “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife,” Western Folklore 54 (Jan. 1995): 39. ↩
“Vernacular religion” is nearly synonymous with the popular term “lived religion,” though the use of the term “vernacular” carries with it the weight of theoretical and methodological concerns that have been forged in the study of localized language use, architectural design, and cultural performances. ↩