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Introduction On a September day in the early 1950s, third grader Joe Bageant got off the school bus and trudged up the lane to his parents’ home in Winchester, Virginia. Although the door was open, Joe found nobody home. He raced through each room in the house and then around the yard calling for family members and sobbing, a terrible dread building inside the young boy. Within about fifteen minutes his family returned home from visiting a neighbor’s, not a quarter mile up the road, but young Joe did not calm down for hours. He dreamed about the incident off and on for years. Only later did he discover that other children with a similar family background experienced the same terror that Joe suffered that September day. The Bageants were fundamentalist Christians and dispensational premillennialists, believers that Christ’s imminent return will precede the inauguration of the millennium and that He will lift the saved up to heaven and leave the rest to suffer God’s terrible wrath in a period of tribulation. This was the fear that young Joe Bageant felt when he arrived at home and found his family gone, that they had been raptured up and that he would have to face the consequences alone. Some fifty years later, Bageant still recalled the episode and the permanent marks that “the grim fundamentalist architecture of the soul” left on him and other children reared in this Fundamentalist culture. “An apocalyptic starkness remains somewhere inside us,” he confided.1 Bageant ultimately rejected the Fundamentalism of his working-class parents. But when he returned to Winchester in 2001, he discovered how much the ensuing fifty years had “clobbered” the white working class of his hometown, and he lamented the part played by religion. Although his father was a firm believer in the Rapture and his brother was a pastor at the independent Shenandoah Bible Baptist Church, Bageant could barely contain his dismay over the political ideas that he imagined emanated from their faith. Still, he loved his brother and struggled in his irreverent memoir to safeguard the trust of people who expected him not to “make fools of them.” Bageant granted that some of the evangelical conservatism of Winchester’s white working class came from their feeling that 2 Introduction liberals disparaged working people and had abandoned them. Still, he had a hard time coming to grips with his family’s belief that “the hand of Satan or demons afoot in the world” was behind everything from their personal anxieties to global conflicts.2 Bageant’s dilemma is instructive for our purposes. For too long, historians, especially those studying the working class, made religion a prop, ignoring belief in the supernatural that is at the core of American popular religiosity. Scholars looked for how various groups used religion rather than to try to understand faith and the part it plays in the life of working people. Trained in “a materialist conception of historical change” that owes much to British Marxism, even the best American labor historians often elided or caricatured spiritual influences in their analyses. In many studies, religion served as an impediment to workers’ understanding their class interests. Religion either divided workers of different faiths, served as a tool for the upwardly mobile, or provided a numbing fatalism (a “chiliasm of despair”) that prevented working people from taking action against their exploiters.3 In other studies, the stimulus provided by Herbert Gutman weighed heavily. He was drawn to the examples he uncovered of a Christian spirit infusing the rhetoric and writings of labor activists and offering a postmillennial justification for working-class solidarity.4 Neither group of scholars tried to grapple systematically with the messiness of spiritual convictions and how those convictions interacted with lived experiences to shape the consciousness and actions of average working people. As Bageant’s example suggests, scholars have largely included southern white Protestant workers in the first category. Historians have been too easily contented with assumptions that southern evangelicalism spawned either intolerant or fatalistic outlooks that made any working-class social movement virtually impossible. For the mid-twentieth century, many scholars have relied heavily on analyzing radio preachers or such viciously racist, xenophobic, and antiliberal publications as Militant Truth or The Gospel Trumpet, newspapers that combined reactionary rhetoric with a staunch defense of traditional evangelical Protestantism.5 Others have focused on the paternalistic textile mill villages and the ministers who were obligated to the company and to fostering a grateful, placid working class...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780252097003
Related ISBN
9780252039034
MARC Record
OCLC
903246012
Pages
320
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-24
Language
English
Open Access
No
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