- Authors’ Response
One of the things we realized as we read the contributions to this symposium is that if you try to shine a bright light on a factor that has been ignored or slighted by previous scholarship in the field, it ends up distorting some of what you are trying to say. In Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie, we hope that we did not give the impression that we blamed Protestant evangelicalism for Operation Dixie’s failure or that we intended to privilege that factor above all others. We believe that a powerful mix of racism, anticommunism, employer intransigence, and repressive state and local governments was the major impediment to the CIO’s campaign. What we discovered, however, was that aspects of the region’s dominant religious culture at that particular moment made the CIO’s overtures less appealing to white workers than labor activists and liberal reformers had hoped. The sacred sphere of southern white evangelicals was not static but rather the product of fears as well as hopes, of nightmares as well as dreams, and influenced by the notion that the world was a contest between good and evil in which God and Satan intervened directly into their lives and battled for their souls. This colored the way they saw employers, unions, and communists. Their religious views were also shaped by a rising level of material comfort and the prospect for even greater economic security for their siblings and their children. It is little wonder, then, that a worker like Lucille Hall would look askance at unions’ sending “outsiders in here to tell you how bad you were treated. You’d know better” (quoted on 81).
The symposium’s participants have given us a tall order in terms of responding to things we might have done better. We are grateful for their attention to the [End Page 87] book—its strengths as well as its weaknesses. It seems as if the best way to proceed is sequential. Let us begin with Christopher D. Cantwell. He is correct in reminding us that Protestant evangelicalism put an emphasis on communalism as well as individualism and that white workers often looked for the “approving nods” of their fellow worshippers. Indeed, we agree that this communal feeling could be a boon to organizing, particularly in places like the coalfields. However, it seems worthwhile to consider what sorts of communities evangelicalism was creating. Most were voluntary communities of believers that could fracture easily over either sacred or secular disputes. They emphasized independent choice among their members and a fierce local autonomy. Do these sound like values that the CIO would welcome? Communities of saints could also be quite exclusionary; the passage constantly drummed into the minds of evangelicals cautioned against “being yoked to unbelievers.” Our friend Steve Rosswurm pushed us some time ago to think about the concept of elective affinities. To us, the worldview of many of these communities of believers jarred against that of the bureaucratic discipline expected by the CIO.
To Cantwell, whose grandfather worked for both spiritual and material rewards, it seems probable that the CIO might have had more success focusing on its own economic and political program rather than religion, particularly since few in the movement understood the sacred world they were entering. Perhaps. But CIO organizers found themselves confronted by employers and preachers who warned against caring too much about worldly things. At church, they learned the Biblical lesson of being satisfied with their wages, which, as noted above, were better than they had ever been. Under the circumstances, if the CIO was going to succeed in keeping the South from becoming a low-wage haven for industry, it had to give its crusade a moral imperative. The AFL, to which Cantwell points as an example for its focus on wages and working conditions, benefited from employers who feared the CIO and from organizing more craft-oriented workers; the AFL did not have to win the hearts and minds of its workers to the same degree as the CIO did.
We are delighted that Julie Saville stepped...