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  • Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf
  • Joe Creech
Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015
xiv + 264 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper)

In Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf provide a richly researched, informative, and important intervention into the literature on labor and religion in the twentieth-century American South. The authors narrate the CIO's failed effort in "Operation Dixie" to organize the South immediately after the end of the Second World War. In doing so, they provide: a new narrative for understanding the interaction among southern evangelical Protestants, labor, and New Deal policies and politics in the 1930s and 1940s; a more detailed explanation for the failure of Operation Dixie focused on the CIO's inability or unwillingness to understand the complexities of southern evangelical Protestantism; and a detailed portrait of white, southern working-class evangelical Protestants' connection to labor and radical politics. On this third point, while the authors acknowledge that histories of labor in the South and labor more generally have not ignored the importance of religion, they argue nonetheless that most works have treated religion too simplistically—as propelling a monolithic reaction against unionization. They offer a complex portrait of evangelical Protestantism that at certain times and places, especially before 1945, could support unions by drawing on complex, multivalent ideas and practices within the tradition (and moreover could support communism, New Deal policies, and advancements in civil rights for African Americans). The book thus offers not only a better understanding of why organizations like the CIO failed to organize labor in the American South but a detailed picture of the relationship of southern religion to labor in the mid-twentieth century.

The first two-thirds of the book detail southern Protestant evangelicals' relationship to politics, economics, and racial inequality as these connected to labor unions before and through the Second World War. Far from being merely reactionary, certain elite, white, urban Protestants drew on the northern Social Gospel to advocate New Deal policies, racial equality, and unionism. While these elites (as well as elite industrialists opposed to unions) are part of Fones-Wolf and Fones-Wolf's story, the authors' more groundbreaking work profiles white working-class support for unionization, New Deal policies, and even, at times, racial equality or more radical communitarian ideas. Such white working-class evangelicals drew on evangelical strains of antielitism (which supported a kind of evangelical working-class solidarity) that combined political activism with theological conservatism. For them, unions or New Deal legislation helped to maintain a sacred economic independence that industrialists aimed to quash. Such working-class folks forged with liberal elites something the authors call a "prophetic radical Christianity" in the South with African Americans often at the fore in these efforts. Fones-Wolf and Fones-Wolf also detail how members of Pentecostal or holiness churches often displayed the most complex responses to these forces, supporting at times the most [End Page 119] radical expressions of communism and unionism and at other times deep opposition to union membership as being improperly tied to worldliness. This prophetic radical Christianity directly influenced successful union organization among mining, cotton, and steel industries prior to the Second World War and sustained support for New Deal legislation and unionism through the war.

While Protestant evangelicalism sometimes prompted prophetic radical Christianity, it more commonly fostered opposition to unions. Such opposition—present in the 1930s but increasing through the 1940s—resulted from at least two factors. First, evangelical Protestants opposed unions and New Deal policies in favor of laissez-faire ideals arising from formal theological ideas or evangelical patterns of thought. Among these were the aforementioned idea that one should not be "unequally yoked" with godless or "worldly" organizations like unions; the injunction in II Thessalonians that those who do not work should not eat; the idea that unions are materialistic in their pursuit of higher wages; the notion that unions and especially strikes disrupt religious...


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pp. 119-120
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