Review: No Depression in Heaven
Jarod Roll is Associate Professor of History at the University of Mississippi.
Cite this Article
Jarod Roll, "Review: No Depression in Heaven," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): wp.jsreligion.org/vol18/roll.
Alison Collis Greene. No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 317 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-937187-7.
In this superb historical study of how religious groups in Memphis and its Delta hinterland responded to the Great Depression, Alison Collis Greene argues that the catastrophes of the 1930s realigned the relationship between moral authority and the politics of capitalism in the South. When the region’s dominant religious institutions, mostly Protestant, failed to meet the material needs of the destitute, they lost moral and social authority to an increasingly powerful New Deal state that many lay believers viewed as heaven-sent. “Instead of driving people to the churches,” Greene demonstrates, “the Great Depression drove the church to the state” (194). Yet, as the church establishment endured a crisis of leadership, other groups seized new opportunities to gain power and influence—some, like the Church of God in Christ, by using federal programs, and others, like fundamentalists, by blaming federal programs for the crisis itself. According to Greene, by 1940 these fractures had yielded a political realignment within southern religion that would last for decades to come.
Importantly, Greene begins by reminding us that many southern churches actually embraced the politics of social welfare before the Depression. Indeed, she provides overwhelming evidence that white Protestants believed that the economic crisis would enhance their power in the public realm. In the decade after the Great War, more than ever before, they had claimed responsibility over social problems and pushed solutions through local and state governments. The Protestant establishment sought better public schools, more attention to public health, less racial violence, and, most importantly, a prohibition on the alcohol trade. Greene rightly emphasizes that Prohibition “represented for many churchgoers both an affirmation of their political power and a necessary step toward the government’s incorporation of Protestant moral imperatives” (108). She is careful to show, however, that their power rested atop a social and economic hierarchy that relied on the profits of plantation capitalism that linked Memphis to the cotton fields in the surrounding lowlands. The wealthiest religious groups in the crisis-prone region built charitable organizations that stood ready to aid the needy if the needy were judged deserving, a determination that almost always adhered to hierarchies of social class, gender, and race. As Greene makes clear, their moral authority shaped government intervention on behalf of the poor, but in ways that reinforced elite control of the exploitative plantation system.
As the worsening crisis decimated rural people throughout the cotton country, these religious institutions were at first unwilling but soon unable to help as unprecedented numbers of people faced destitution, homelessness, and, in many cases, starvation. Despite rationing relief to those deemed most deserving, even the richest religious organizations quickly exhausted their resources. Rural churches fared far worse. As Greene shows in painstaking detail, “the Great Depression thus exposed the inability—and often the unwillingness—of religious and voluntary organizations to address the suffering that surrounded them” (68).
As a consequence, Greene argues, most southerners welcomed the New Deal’s assertion of moral authority in 1933 and 1934. Poor southerners, both African American and white, viewed President Roosevelt as an answer to their prayers, and many considered him a religious figure in his own right. Despite the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the leaders of the religious establishment also cheered New Deal intervention as they ceded the duties of social relief to government agencies. Some mainstream leaders considered New Deal programs an extension of their own social reform efforts, which was easy to do, since elite whites controlled so many of the local agencies that actually administered federal initiatives. Even on the margins, figures as removed from one another as fundamentalist J. Frank Norris and social gospeler Alva Taylor both approved, at least initially.
According to Greene, such accord unraveled as the Roosevelt administration excluded religious organizations as agents for its largest relief programs, beginning with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1933. With no formal voice in federal programs, she argues, these groups lost control over questions of political economy. While elite whites might run New Deal agencies that carefully maintained their social control, Greene makes the novel and exciting argument that the programs themselves redistributed the moral authority that mainstream religious groups had once claimed to those long subsumed in southern racial and class hierarchies. Groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union now rose to demand not only stronger but fairer government programs for those caught in the plantation economy. As a result, she shows, “members of the Protestant establishment had to share their place in welfare and reform not only with the federal government, whose help they had sought, but also with their religious rivals in the region,” as well as emboldened critics “of the South’s racial and economic order” (193).
What resulted, Greene concludes, was a fragmentation of local religious authority amid divided views of how churches should respond to the government’s new reform role. African American churches continued to advocate for fairness, a trajectory that would lead to the Civil Rights Movement. Some white religious supporters of the New Deal remained. By the end of the 1930s, however, white Protestants increasingly viewed the state’s moral power as a threat to their own authority and turned against it. Many of these believers, Greene writes, would find “common cause with fundamentalist and corporate conservatives who had denounced federal intervention in social welfare from the start” (195). Unlike in the 1920s, however, their efforts to regain moral authority in politics would not include any claims of responsibility for the negative consequences of capitalism.
With No Depression in Heaven, Greene makes a powerful addition to a growing literature on the relationship between religion and political economy in the South, and in the United States in general, in the modern era.1 This beautifully written, deeply researched book is aimed primarily at historians of religion and politics, but will be of interest to anyone concerned with the moral dimensions of political economy.
1 Excellent recent examples of this scholarship include, Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2016); Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds., Between the Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016); Kevin J. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015); Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford University Press, 2015); and Ken Fones-Wolf and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Struggle for the Soul of the South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie (University of Illinois Press, 2015).