Hope takes on a life of its own

Former First lady, Michelle Obama, encourages us, “…don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” Such courage and hope is highlighted in the lives of working people who leveraged their religious faith to bring about cultural change. Their stories are told with rich detail in the collection; The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class, Edited by Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake. As part of The Working Class in American History series, the book demonstrates that it is ordinary working people inspired by religious faith, who are often the true protagonist of history. 

Echoing theologian H. Richard Nieburhr, these essays reveal a central insight, “that ordinary people have deeply shaped the larger history of Christianity [through] the rise of new sects to champion the uncompromising ethics of Jesus and ‘to preach the gospel to the poor’” These stories implicate a wind rage of backgrounds, vocations, geographies, as well as a variety of Christian dogmas in the shaping of American labor history. Showing that auto workers on assembly lines in Detroit, were able to find meaning in the monotony of their work, just as miners in Western Missouri were able to find strength to continue their dangerous work inspired by Pentecostal preaching. 

The collection also addresses a host of social justice issues that were shaped by working class individuals who felt compelled to do so by their faith in Christ. For instance, author Alison Collis Greene recalls in her essay, “Radical Christianity and Cooperative Economics in the Postwar South,” the powerful rhetoric that challenged the status quo of economic inequality, “Will the churches of the South, whose denominational roots are revolutionary and whose Holy Book is not a stick of candy but a stick of dynamite, do as much to bring to the farm and factory worker a good wage, a decent house, a free assembly, a brotherhood enfolding all races?”

But the challenges presented in The Pew and the Picket Line do not merely recall instances where religion served as a call to action, but effectively showcases how apathy associated with religion also served to placate workers. This collection demonstrates how working people, shaped and bended their religious beliefs to accommodate their work and make sense of their lives, and how that sometimes the leveraging of religion by power structures, to keep workers productive on the job, ended up having unintended negative cultural consequences.

For instance, citing a 1961 study conducted by the Detroit Industrial Mission, an essay penned by Matthew Pehl gives ample evidence that it was the conflating of religion with work that inoculated the assembly line worker from the madness of a monotonous task, but also serving to deflate the spirit of contributing to anything larger than work itself.

As Pehl points out, 

The religion with which [many workers] are deeply imbued and from which they have fled but not escaped is the religion of merit, of holiness in moralistic terms, of earned righteousness, of do’s and don’ts, mostly the latter…The workingman faces the same thing in the work and the religion available to him. God and the factory are one and the same. The man is dominated by them and coerced by them, but he hates them both, because they have refused him his manhood.

Unintended indifference notwithstanding, overall the collection validates Nieburhr’s thesis, showing that religious working people informed by their faith take actions which impact history. Whether in the action of “The United Front,” an alliance of black theological and business leaders in Cairo, Illinois, finding inspiration in the work of the Old Testament leader Nehemiah, or the metal miners of Galina, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri, who upon hearing the expressive Pentecostal exhortations of Charles F. Parham, found what they perceived to be as supernatural endorsement of their dangerous entrepreneurial gambles. And at the same time, their religious practices admonished them not to forget the poor working man, should their speculations hit pay dirt. These revivals and religious gatherings promoted this ethos, “According to the survey of Joplin’s religious life, ‘Men worth hundreds of thousands are every Sunday seen to grasp the calloused hand of a mine-laborer and say, ‘God bless you brother.’”

The editors of The Pew and The Picket Line go to great lengths to illuminate the contributions of the marginalized, overlooked, and forgotten labors. Even including the contributions of what most may consider mundane tasks, such as “a small group of Pentecostal women who worked as pecan shellers.” And even though their words and actions were absorbed by big movements of history, they, along with other laborers displayed in the collection produce a legacy of benefaction through decolonized words and restored voices of those, who, in the words of contributor Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, “created their own space of activist popular religion despite the opposition of religious institutions and their gatekeepers.” 

The Pew and The Picket Line demonstrate that we should avoid easy assumptions when it comes to religion and workers. People act and think, often in unpredictable ways leading to strange turns in human history. This book is helpful in that it gives us a glimpse into the documented ways in which people organize, not just around labor concerns, but around what they consider to be eternal concerns. Ordinary people, when motivated by faith, are capable of extraordinary contributions. 

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