Response to Roundtable on Class
The contributions gathered in this roundtable do more than suggest new directions for potential future study. Taken together, they map a thriving historiographical field that belies the premise of the opening question. It seems clear to me that an emphasis on class in the study of southern religion is no longer something that needs to be done, but is rather a project already well underway. What gives this work such promise is that two very different sets of historians are working on it. On the one hand, we have historians of American religion who are interested in class, labor and poverty. On the other hand, we have historians of American labor and working-class life who are pursuing questions of spirituality and faith. That these two sets of scholars are converging and conversing, apparently spontaneously, is an important development that offers a tremendous opportunity to reach broad-based, synthetic conclusions that contribute to the big picture in southern and American history.
One of the most important avenues I see developing here is the idea of religious faith, particularly the way ordinary people interpreted and debated received theologies, and sometimes actively sought new ones, as an act of choice, of agency. Several contributors raised this issue, but I would like to highlight Richard Callahan’s take: “be aware of religion as something made, something produced and reworked by human beings in particular contexts.” This represents a considerable challenge, I think, especially to historians of labor, who remain keen to see religious belief as a secondary symptom of a primary, material cause. If we are going to take working-class agency seriously, and labor historians do try to do so, then we have to include working-class faith in the deal. Historians who have written about evangelical Christians in the conservative movement after World War II have provided excellent studies that show how people adapted their religious faith in the new postwar context to seize political and cultural power.1 Although the historical actors at the heart of that story often emphasized (and continue to emphasize) the “fundamentalism” of their faith and thus their politics, their success was due not to static ideas but rather to dynamic theological and intellectual innovation. Work on labor-based religious activists and laypeople in the first half of the century is currently producing a counterweight to this more contemporary story, but the two will need to be joined up at some point soon. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf’s eagerly anticipated project on religion in the CIO’s Operation Dixie promises to do just that.
In terms of the hitches that we need to work through, I think it is important to second comments by Alison Collis Greene and John Hayes about the necessity of including both white and African American stories in our efforts to understand religion and class in the South. I realize that the racial demographics in some areas of the South—Appalachia and the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta come to mind—warrant research that focuses primarily on one racial group. But this is not the case in most southern areas, particularly in southern towns and cities. Even Harlan County had several divisions of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s. We could gain a great deal by following the approach of Paul Harvey and others to build analytical and conceptual frameworks that encompass the religious and working worlds of both races. Of course as we move forward, this field will need to account for other faith traditions among new sets of migrants to the southern states, most obviously Catholics, but also Muslims, Hindus, and others. For example, will the story of the predominantly Catholic workers from central and south America who labor in the South’s ubiquitous chicken-processing industry change our understanding of the history of class and religion in the region, particularly at a time when evangelical Protestants have tended to support a conservative movement dedicated both to non-union labor and anti-immigrant populism?
My final point is really a question: are we justified in limiting this analysis to a regional, southern story about faith and class? What happens when we broaden our perspective to consider religion and class nationally? Judging not just by the recent brace of studies on conservatism or the out-migration of southerners, but more importantly by the work on labor and religion in the urban North, especially Ken Fones-Wolf’s book on the Social Gospel in Philadelphia and Heath Carter’s ongoing study of religious communities and the labor movement in Chicago, I think it is probably safe to say that the continued regional focus must lead ultimately to a national, or at least interregional, framework.2 And, of course if we want to include more recent developments like the politics of undocumented Catholic workers or the rise of figures like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a fascinating study in religious faith and class politics if there ever was one, we will need to use international narratives to tell southern stories.
Among my favorites: Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010); Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: New Press, 2010); Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). ↩
See especially: Ken Fones-Wolf, Trade Union Gospel: Christianity and Labor in Industrial Philadelphia, 1865–1915 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); and Heath Carter, “Scab Ministers, Striking Saints: Christianity and Class Conflict in 1894 Chicago,” American Nineteenth Century History 11 (September 2010): 21–49. ↩