- Other Souls, Other Struggles
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf’s Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie examines how the ideas, institutions, and practices of white Protestant evangelicals responded to the regional organizing campaign that the CIO launched in southern states in May 1946. The authors’ proposition that postwar unionization efforts assumed varying and contested religious meanings among workers, employers, and pro- and antiunionization spokespersons alike is a useful reminder that workplace authority, employment, and wages are ethical as well as economic issues. Their decision to explore the unionization campaign from the vantage of southern white evangelicals, while perhaps surprising in its exclusion of African American Protestant workers, does yield significant interpretive advantages. The decision helps to focus analysis on key moments in the emergence of a pro-business regional variant of evangelicalism as a southern phenomenon. It provides a way to think about how common evangelical religious cultures developed and spread from core sites of industrial production whose social relations of labor were ostensibly as different as those of the southeastern piedmont textile industry and the oil and petrochemical industry of the southwest. The focus also permits close analysis of the dynamics of evangelical religious culture of workers, ministers, and labor organizers in these same leading industries of textiles, oil, and wood production that the CIO targeted for its unionization drive. The result is a nuanced examination of the ways in which theological assumptions central to a novel postwar conception of Protestant fundamentalism challenged a postwar social movement whose radical activists drew upon variant understandings of evangelical commitment in a bid to overturn the low-wage, nonunion model of southern industrial development.
The interpretive horizons opened by this focus on white evangelicals are significant. To employ an admittedly blunt oversimplification of the account, the CIO’s postwar southern labor drive engaged at least three variants of evangelical conviction. Itinerant labor organizers, not all of whom were white, often shared a prophetic, self-defined modern tradition in which the quest to achieve personal salvation galvanized a commitment to work for social reform. Among mostly white southern workers, ministers, and employers, especially residents of mill villages and company [End Page 75] towns, organizing activists encountered a self-defined orthodox tradition in which the quest for salvation strove to conquer personal sin rather than to pursue social reform. Increasingly during the 1940s, workers and union organizers alike encountered a third evangelical variant in the form of a corporate industrial evangelicalism that bestowed on market transactions the transformative capacities of individual agency and the achievement of social welfare. The authors give painstaking attention to the unpredictable, complicated, and often contradictory processes by which these historical actors variously understood evangelical Protestantism’s implications for unionization. Their accomplished reconstruction of reformers’ social no less than spiritual biographies reveals the persistent and dogged efforts of itinerant Protestant radicals on behalf of CIO unionization. Their identification of the religious doubts that lingered among even those conservative evangelical workers who came to support unionization is memorable. Even as union members, they explain, some white evangelical workers worried that the union promoted too much concern with worldly gain and rewarded slackers for poor work, and they feared that strikes damaged community and family harmony in irreparable ways. Mill hands’ fragmented consciousness, the authors argue, suggests that white workers were better able to incorporate unconventional ideas about unionization and household gender relations than to relinquish racial hierarchy, scouring their Bibles for justifications of Jim Crow even while union membership required adoption of an unconventional emphasis on horizontal rather than vertical obligations of community. Their exploration of the daily uses to which white evangelical workers put their Bibles richly illustrates their general point: “There is no simple formula for understanding the ways that class sorted religious experience” (85).
As someone more familiar with the dynamics of incipient labor organization undertaken by ex-slave rural workers in the post-emancipation South, it is not my purpose to reflect critically on the politics of religious sensibility that infused labor organizing after World War II. The authors and others know this era far better than I do. But comparing religious dimensions of...