Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf. Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xiv + 264 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-08066-1.

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Did southern workers and employers present significantly different challenges for labor organizers during the postwar era than their northern, urban counterparts? Did southern evangelicalism create such an anti-union culture that organizers required more specific methods than national leaders on “Religion and Labor” were able to muster?

In their deeply researched landmark study of Operation Dixie, the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (CIO) postwar organizing campaign in the South, Elizabeth and Kenneth Fones-Wolf answer both of these questions in the affirmative. They complicate our understandings of Operation Dixie’s failure by examining the ways that southern evangelical church leaders and their partners in the business community created a religious culture of paternalism, anti-unionism, contentment with wages, and especially anti-communism. Despite the CIO’s employment of capable organizers who understood the core tenets of the Social Gospel and its backing in Scripture, the Fones-Wolfs argue, the campaign failed to understand fully the distaste of southern evangelicals for northern liberal Protestants and therefore failed to challenge substantially the evangelical defense of non-union workplaces.

Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South intervenes in a number of current scholarly debates. First, it complicates the argument that the CIO was so unsuccessful at organizing the postwar South because a) white workers’ union membership was prioritized over that of black workers, and b) the CIO distanced themselves from communists (many of whom were African Americans.) While emphasizing the truth in these strategic failures, the Fones-Wolfs add to these the CIO’s failure to employ more southern organizers from evangelical communities and to acknowledge the battle with southern evangelical conservatism at the forefront of the campaign. Moreover, they argue that the CIO had no choice but to be associated with communists. Practically all interracial movements for economic and racial justice were accused of sympathy with communism, and anti-communism grew to become a tenet of southern evangelicalism.

Second, the book makes a major contribution to studies on the southern origins of the Religious Right in the immediate postwar period. The Fones-Wolfs’ analysis of large numbers of oral histories in the Southern Oral History Project deepens our understanding of the contingency of an anti-union climate in the postwar working class South. Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton, for example, emphasized the simultaneous rise of ministers in the National Association of Evangelicals and the paternalistic, pro-business lobbies of the Republican Party, with the suggestion that these relationships themselves sealed the conservatism of Southern workers.1 In contrast, the Fones-Wolfs strive to depict a real “struggle for the soul of the postwar South” that was not simply determined by ministers and big-business funding for seminars on “Christian free-enterprise.” The Fones-Wolfs showcase the large number of Southern workers and ministers who remained comfortable with unions and Franklin Delano Roosevelt throughout the postwar era, as well as the ways that some of these union-friendly workers struggled within evangelical churches.

The authors’ rich research on southern evangelicalism persuasively restores agency to working class evangelicals and contingency to the marriage between the Bible Belt and the Religious Right. In illuminating the many radical and liberal Southerners who defended unions and the possibility of economic equality, they convincingly show that postwar evangelicalism was neither inevitably conservative nor monolithic. Their story is recognizable to its subjects, especially folks who understood themselves rejecting mainline denominations for a mixture of cultural and theological reasons.

The monograph’s greatest strength is its analysis of the social histories of working class Christianity in the South. Building upon the work of Wayne Flynt and others, the Fones-Wolfs show how evangelicalism became a locus of southern identity amidst the rapid industrialization and migrations of the postwar era. They argue that working class southerners left national denominations for local evangelical churches even before they were sure where they stood on the question of unions. This is a key departure from other origin-stories of the Religious Right, which have emphasized the simultaneous rise of business paternalism and the National Association of Evangelicals.2 According to the Fones-Wolfs, many working class Southerners rejected the national denominations because locally run evangelical churches “provided a moral, legitimating impetus for [southern] regional identity” (8). These sacred southern spaces for alienated migrants affirmed dispensationalist theology, a set of beliefs about a rapidly degenerating world that further resonated with displaced southerners’ personal experiences. When the Federal Council of Churches, a threateningly large national organization, used their free national radio airtime as a tool to suppress southern evangelical preachers with theologies different from theirs, the Fones-Wolfs argue, southerners saw themselves attacked by northern theological liberals. The authors argue that many poor whites understood evangelicalism as synonymous with their southern cultural identity and theological liberalism as synonymous with northerners.

Yet, the monograph’s least-supported claim is its defense of the “distinctiveness” of southern evangelicalism. If southern evangelicalism was not a political project but an effort to reconstruct a southern cultural identity, then why did a vocal minority of southerners incline toward the (northern-identified) social gospel in the 1930s and 1940s? The authors miss an opportunity to interrogate critically the observation, however widely held, that southerners understood themselves as different from, and oppressed by, northern liberals. Indeed, this observation was not universally held; as the authors note, a number of CIO organizers were southerners.

In fact, the authors’ range of working class Protestant actors, from radical prophets to radical white supremacists, undermines their argument that the CIO failed to understand southern evangelical religion. They argue that Operation Dixie suffered because CIO leaders kept southern evangelical organizers “at arm’s length.” Yet, if a vocal minority of southerners accepted some version of the Federal Council’s “social gospel,” then the CIO was not that foolish to think that they could multiply this set of convictions among southerners. Were the CIO and the Federal Council truly the products of the North that many southerners perceived they were? The authors make an important intervention in the literature in showing that the categories of “northerner” and “southerner” held currency for southern evangelicals, but they miss an opportunity to examine how and why this perception germinated. They also fail to engage directly with the counter-argument, advanced by other historians, that central to conservative political perspectives in the postwar era was the myth that they were in fact theological convictions.3

Scholars of religion in the North will hesitate at the suggestion that southern evangelicals’ perceptions of persecution by the Federal Council of Churches should be understood differently from northern evangelicals’ dismissal of left-wing clerics because of political differences. They will give pause at the assessment, begun in Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s earlier work on southern broadcasting battles, that the Federal Council instigated the tensions, and ultimately, divorce, between northern and southern Protestants in the postwar era (46–53). Further research is needed to verify to what extent the Federal Council intended to persecute and ghettoize southern evangelicals. Most other scholarship on the evangelical and fundamentalist movements emphasizes evangelical defiance and dismissal of denominational authority.4 Yet, through both synthesis of past research and tremendous new analysis of oral histories, Struggle significantly advances our understanding of the religious and social history of Operation Dixie. The authors provide us yet another classic in working class religious history.

  1. Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), 81–137; Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 125–144.

  2. Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart, 86–99; Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, 118–123; Daniel Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 19–21; Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: The History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 287–289.

  3. Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart, 5; Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse, 6.

  4. Priscilla Pope-Levison, Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 69–109; Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse.