- Popular Religion versus Unpopular Unions
My Kentucky-born grandfather came of age during the era of Operation Dixie. The son of Appalachian furniture manufacturers, he spent most of his life as a member of a Southern Baptist Church. And he simply loved to tell jokes about the religious world he inherited. “If you ever have to go fishing with a Southern Baptist,” he would say, “make sure he brings a friend. Because if you go fishing with one Southern Baptist he’ll drink all of your beer. But if you go fishing with two Southern Baptists you’ll have all of the beer to yourself because they won’t drink in front of each other for fear that the preacher might find out.”
I was reminded of my grandfather’s sense of humor as I read Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf’s wonderful new book. It seems to embody so much of their approach to the study of religion. In the same way most Southerners know full well that their brethren are never as dry as their pastors want them to be, so too are Fones-Wolf and Fones-Wolf not content to let ministers have the last word in describing the South’s religious landscape. Instead, they expand their gaze beyond the pulpit to consider the beliefs of those who sat in the pews, going so far as to leave the church altogether in order to explore the religious currents that animated the lives of white evangelical workers between Sundays. This “popular religiosity,” as the authors call it, was central to the lived experience of the South’s white workers. As workers “inter-pret[ed] their faith in practical terms for use and guidance in their daily living and to give meaning to their lives,” this popular religion would also help determine the fate of one of the largest organizing campaigns in American history (ix).
This focus on the religious worlds of America’s working people is an important one. It corrects a long-standing presumption within the study of labor that saw religion either as irrelevant or as antithetical to workplace activism. John R. Commons, Richard T. Ely, and the other Progressive Era intellectuals who founded the discipline may have considered themselves advocates of “Christian economics,” for example, but their foundational work on the American labor movement excluded any reference to the faith of union members. For them, such concerns were supposedly too distant from the point of production. Even the new labor history of the 1960s and 1970s, with its appreciation for the particularities of working-class community [End Page 69] life, could only recognize religion by its ecclesiastical forms, seeing the myriad congregations that dotted working-class neighborhoods as inhibitors to a broader class consciousness. Religion may have saturated working people’s lives, but to many labor historians it was an obstacle organizers had to overcome.
There were of course exceptions to this trend. Herbert G. Gutman’s classic 1966 American Historical Review article argued that Christian idioms were vital to trade union rhetoric.1 But it was not until Fones-Wolf and Fones-Wolf’s earliest works appeared that the religious histories of the American labor movement received sustained treatment. Ken Fones-Wolf’s Trade Union Gospel (1989) was one of the first books to document the occasionally symbiotic relationship union leaders and religious leaders had in attempting to influence a community’s workers. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s Selling Free Enterprise (1994), meanwhile, told of religion’s centrality to the shape of the American economic landscape well before the new history of capitalism had emerged.2 Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South continues this pioneering work, except this time it has been joined by a new generation of scholars who see themselves working in those spaces where labor history and religious history overlap. In the last decade, a host of new work on the varieties of working-class religious life has emerged, exploring everything from the importance of esoteric theology to journeymen’s movements, to the role workplace injuries had in faith healing’s rise, to the effect indigenous beliefs and Catholic priests had on the workplace...