Response to Roundtable on Class
I have enjoyed the opportunity to participate in this roundtable. It is interesting to me that each of us, working in scholarly isolation—two of us in labor history, two in religious history, and one in religious studies—have come to emphasize class as a salient part of religious life in a region and era usually named for its racial configurations: the Jim Crow South. I would like to offer a few ruminating observations and hunches towards further questions, in what I hope will be a continuing conversation, as we—the readers of this journal more broadly—try to tell the story of religion in the South in ways that adequately express the complexity, nuance, and paradox of our subject-matter.
All of us insist in different ways that class analysis reveals religious differences that either had not been seen—or that had been noted but never accentuated as a dominant theme in the scholarship. Simply put, we all say that the religious life of southern industrial and agricultural workers (more on categories in a moment) was different from the religious life of the propertiedormiddle class southerners we know well through the regional denominations and local congregations whose life they dominated. We all also argue that we need to try to see the religious life of southern workers through their own lenses, and not through the overwhelmingly negative portraits that the propertied painted—and that some historians have too easily repainted. But: how exactly to categorize such difference remains an open question. What religion or what religious life are we talking about? What is a good shorthand term that at least suggests these differences, and opens the door to their elaboration? Does adding “working class” or “middle class” to denominational categories like “Baptist” or “Pentecostal” adequately express this difference? Or are we instead talking about innumerable local contexts with all sorts of variation and variety, which make regional generalization impossible? Or, if “evangelical” is the largest umbrella term for much of regional religious life in the years 1900–1950, should we seek, in class and race terms, to clarify and differentiate distinct branches of a broadly evangelical tree? My research has led me to emphasize commonalities across the region in the religious life of working southerners, whether in industry or agriculture, in mountains or in Delta. I’ve called this religious strand “folk religion” but, depending upon the day, that term seems alternately either apropos or badly inadequate. At any rate, I hope the search for viable categories becomes a pressing theme for students of southern religion. For a long time we have had denominational and racial categories to frame difference, but if we push class analysis and insist that we are talking about real difference, how do we then rightly categorize what, thirty years ago, scholars were calling “varieties of southern religious experience”?
It is striking and somewhat ironic to me that class analysis is so much better developed for the “pre-capitalist” (or perhaps “proto-capitalist”) Old South than it is for the overtly capitalist, industrializing, market-suffused New South. Most any student of the South is familiar with antebellum planters, slaves, yeomen, and “poor whites,” but how exactly to name New South groups in class terms is not a simple matter—even for those of us who seek to do that in our own work. “Working class” and “middle class” suggest an industrial context, but of course the New South was still predominantly agricultural, and neither term was common in the discourse of the society itself. Richard Callahan helpfully reminds us of E.P. Thompson’s admonition that “class is a relationship, not a thing,” and I think from there we can begin to derive terms more organic to the southern context. As Callahan argues, “religion” and “class” are not discrete entities in relation to one another, but rather intertwined phenomena inherent in human relationships. Certain religious practices become intrinsic to a distinct class identity, and vice versa. Framing the question differently, then, how can the study of religion in the New South help us to find viable class categories for the society? The New South was acutely class-conscious, so how can awareness of the ways in which differences of religion became signifiers of differences of class help us to name these different classes? I have suggested “the propertied” and “the poor” as region-wide categories, but this may be entirely too simple.
Class analysis reminds us that wealth in the New South was inherently tied to fairly personalized forms of exploitation, in both agriculture and industry. Exceedingly low wages in industry and radically unequal credit arrangements in agriculture, along with militant anti-unionism, became staples of the New South economy. We know plenty about these economic practices from the scholarship, but we know very little about how religion was bound up with this exploitation. Here again, the literature on the antebellum South is so much better developed. Undergraduates in survey classes can tell you how antebellum southern white evangelicals came to justify and defend slavery—in elaborate theological terms. But how did a Delta landlord/Baptist deacon religiously justify raw exploitation of his tenants, in an era when evangelical cultural power was at its zenith? How did a Methodist mill owner make religious sense of his low wages and union crushing as he lived in a society H. L. Mencken famously dubbed “the Bible Belt”? These questions have been asked before, but I think we still lack a compelling answer that shapes our narratives of southern history.
A volley of books in the past fifteen years has explored racial configurations in the Jim Crow South. We now have a nuanced, ever-refining race analysis that moves well past the older frames of Winthrop Jordan and Gunnar Myrdal. How can this roundtable’s emphasis—class—engage with the literature on race? Does it shake up any categories, or show us significant things we have not seen? Or, does class analysis only take place under the larger umbrella of Jim Crow? Are we clarifying class within a dominant culture defined by race, or are we finding in class analysis things that challenge the (assumed) predominance of race in all areas of New South life? If the former, then I cannot help but feel that we are filling in some lines on a script whose plot we already know. If the latter, then class-focused explorations in southern religion promise to shake up what we think we know, and yield us a rather different story of a South we do not know as well as we thought we did.