Review: Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf. Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xiv + 264pp. ISBN 978-0-252-08066-1.
For generations the fields of religious history and working-class history developed in not-so-splendid isolation from one another. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf were among the first to take issue with this division of labor. In recent years a growing chorus of scholars has validated their concerns, supplying ample evidence that, in the experience of historical actors, religious convictions and class politics were often entangled in messy and unpredictable ways. The Fones-Wolfs’ new book, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South, is a brilliant addition to this increasingly robust body of scholarship. In the process of “making the sacred a major element in the story of the CIO’s crusade for unionism and economic justice,” they moreover mount one of the most compelling cases to date that, if the “new” history of capitalism is to improve upon the old, it must take religious ideas, persons, and institutions more seriously (5).1
As the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) prepared for Operation Dixie—its momentous postwar bid to unionize the South—it recognized two things that historians long overlooked: 1) that the religious beliefs and practices of southern workers would play a key role in shaping their response to organizing campaigns, and 2) that the implications of their religion for the brewing battle with industry were not set in stone. Evangelical Christianity predominated among the white textile workers upon whom the CIO had set its sights, and this diverse, decentralized tradition had been known both to fuel and to stymie unionization. Indeed, as the Fones-Wolfs write, “there were multiple Protestant creeds in the South vying for the devotion of white, working-class adherents” (4). The question was, which one would prevail?
The CIO was not content to sit on the sidelines of this religious struggle. It sent pro-labor Christian representatives such as Lucy Mason and Ruth Gettinger to southern communities in order “to soften the ground for teams of CIO organizers who followed” (140). The hope was that Mason, Gettinger, and other prophetic voices could tap into the progressive Christian legacy of the Depression era, when one southern miner had declared, “I think just as much of my union as I do religion…’Course, we got the Lord, too, on our side. And it’s a blessing to have both” (71). But the going proved tougher than the CIO had anticipated. The Fones-Wolfs explain why, recounting a series of developments that together blunted southern evangelicalism’s pro-union possibilities.
It will be no surprise to historians familiar with Operation Dixie that two of these developments were the intensification of southern anxieties about the specter of communism on the one hand and the future of Jim Crow on the other. The CIO and its interpretation of the gospel seemed beyond the pale to most southerners during a postwar era defined by the confluence of “red scares and black scares” (179). But as the Fones-Wolfs make clear, there is more to the story. Building on the work of Bethany Moreton and others, they show that in the years surrounding World War II “southern industrial boosters and their supporters” invested vast resources into a campaign of their own: “to cement the bonds of evangelicalism and free-enterprise capitalism” (93). The fledgling National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) championed such efforts. It worked assiduously to associate New Deal liberalism with northern liberal Protestantism – a task made easier by the numerous personal and institutional connections between the two – and thereby to clarify that for true believers free enterprise was the only faithful way forward. The NAE’s success left Operation Dixie at a serious disadvantage. As the Fones-Wolfs aptly put it, “The sacred landscape of the South was indeed a battleground, but the armies were far from evenly matched” (128).
This deeply researched study leaves no doubt that, in the postwar South, religious battles were almost never narrowly religious. Indeed, the fates of Christianity and capitalism were linked inextricably. Had more workers shared the views propounded at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, let alone New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, the CIO undoubtedly would have gathered in a larger harvest. As it was, too many white southern evangelicals found in the Bible evidence that God preferred free enterprise. Religious institutions mattered not only because they functioned as hubs for particular biblical and theological perspectives, but also because they embraced different polities and—as the Fones-Wolfs underscore—polity, too, had vital implications for labor history. Had more workers belonged to the Methodist or Episcopal churches, which boasted not only progressive social teachings but also centralized bureaucracies that were better equipped to challenge local customs and traditions, then Operation Dixie might have gained traction. As it was, too many white southern evangelicals flocked to churches that prized their own autonomy, a value that rendered their members at once suspicious of national labor organizations and vulnerable to the power exercised by employers. For the vast majority in the “Christ-haunted” South, it seemed that following Jesus entailed steering clear of the CIO.
The Fones-Wolfs’ book will be of obvious interest to labor and religious historians, but it also deserves also a wide audience among the “new” historians of capitalism. Last November, I presented at the inaugural Cornell Conference on the Histories of Capitalism. The program showcased much of the exciting work currently underway in this field but, of all the superb plenaries and panels, only one dealt substantively with religion (the conference organizers named it simply, “Religion,” a title that certain fit but that also hammered home the theme’s marginality within the context of the conference as a whole.) Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South leaves no doubt that such limited coverage is in fact inadequate—not because religious historians are always entitled to equal time, but because in the modern United States, as the Fones-Wolfs have so persuasively and persistently argued, the histories of God and Mammon are not so easily separated.
The “new” history of capitalism examines the economy with the tools of social and cultural history. Some of the leading scholars in this field include, for example, Edward Baptist, Elizabeth Blackmar, Jefferson Cowie, Louis Hyman, Bethany Moreton, Julia Ott, Sven Beckert, and Jonathan Levy. Its institutional hubs include Cornell University, Columbia University Press, and the Newberry Library. ↩