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  • The Theology of Unionism and Antiunionism
  • Jane Dailey (bio)

In Struggle for the Soul of the South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf have written white southern Christians back into the labor-centric pre-Brown civil rights narrative. This is long overdue, and very welcome. Whereas important books have addressed the role of communists in the various organizing campaigns of the pre–and post–World War II era, those books have neglected the religious beliefs of white Southerners and the intersections of those beliefs with notions about unions, white supremacy, and black civil rights. The CIO made the same mistake in 1946, and Operation Dixie paid for it.

At the same time as popular white southern religious culture has been neglected by scholars so too have the long roots of interracial egalitarian, nonsectarian Christian politics in the cause of civil rights and social justice. An important part of that story concerns leftist white Christian activists such as Miles Horton, Will Alexander, and Don West, who crossed boundaries between prophetic Christianity, communism, and civil rights groups, and leading black churchmen like Benjamin E. Mays, who never flirted with communism but poured Christian content into egalitarian politics beginning in the late 1930s.

The “war against fascism” and the developing Cold War context after 1945 shifted the terms of social justice and civil rights conversations in unanticipated ways. The movement toward human rights discourse associated with the United Nations coincided precisely with the Southern Organizing Campaign. Both spoke in a new idiom of human dignity infused with Christian beliefs. Definitions of human rights were easily rendered into terms of Christian brotherhood and vice versa: ideals of Christian brotherhood informed secular conversations about human rights, cosmopolitanism, and, crucially in the South, unionism.

The theology of brotherhood, of universalist, ecumenical Protestantism, characterized progressive politics in the postwar South. Organizations such as the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen (FSC), the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Highlander Folk School, the YWCA, and the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) took a holistic approach to reforming the South. The secular CIC was seeded with Christian progressives such [End Page 83] as Alexander and Mays, who approached their work as churchmen as well as political activists. The ecumenical FSC and FCC had dedicated staff to address labor and racial questions. When Davis S. Burgess took over as head of the labor commission of the FSC in 1945, he published a special edition of the organization’s journal, Prophetic Religion, that focused on “what churches and unions have in common and the theological basis for stronger cooperation” (113; emphasis added). In 1946 Burgess declared the labor movement “an extension of democracy, and a way of life in which individuals have opportunity to achieve the dignity and self-respect worthy of the children of God” (118).

The theology of unionism and antiunionism is an important part of the story told by Fones-Wolf and Fones-Wolf, who stress that the religious beliefs of white evangelicals were a critical component of their encounter with labor organizing in general and Operation Dixie in particular. Labor organizers recognized immediately that union success in the South depended on winning friends in the churches. For the CIO to bring unions to southern working people in 1946, its organizers would have to understand the attraction of evangelical religion, which defended southern social conventions—including white supremacy—and bolstered the antimaterialist tendencies of the faithful, who trusted in God, and not in unions, to provide. As the authors conclude, “These were not necessarily antiunion values, but antiunion forces better understood them and exploited them in combatting the CIO” (211). Indeed, it was disconcertingly simple for evangelicals and free-enterprise Christians to link communism, racial advancement, the CIO, and modernist religion (179).

Evangelical Christians considered ecumenism, whether in the form of liberal Christian organizations or the CIO, a dangerous development insofar as it threatened Protestant particularity and, it was feared, sacrificed doctrinal purity in the interest of Christian social and political cooperation. The argument that the best way to rebut the postwar communist threat and export democracy abroad was to practice it fully at home was fiercely resisted...