John Hayes: On Class, Religion, and Politics

John Hayes, Hard, Hard Religion Today we welcome a guest post from John Hayes, author of Hard, Hard Religion:  Interracial Faith in the Poor South, on the history behind the increasing importance of class and religion on today’s American political landscape.

In his captivating study of faith and class, John Hayes examines the ways folk religion in the early twentieth century allowed the South’s poor–both white and black–to listen, borrow, and learn from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in a world of severe struggle. Beneath the well-documented religious forms of the New South, people caught in the region’s poverty crafted a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the margins of capitalist development, giving voice to modern phenomena like alienation and disenchantment. Through haunting songs of death, mystical tales of conversion, grassroots sacramental displays, and an ethic of neighborliness, impoverished folk Christians looked for the sacred in their midst and affirmed the value of this life in this world.

Hard, Hard Religion will be available in October, and can be pre-ordered now.

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On Class, Religion, and Politics

Out of nowhere, it seemed, they rose up and became the decisive factor in a drastic power shift—they being the “white working class.” Apparently obscured by the long-dominant discourse of a vague, expansive “middle class,” here they were, suddenly appearing as a force to be reckoned with, the core of the triumphant Trump phenomenon of 2016. Journalists not previously given to class analysis scrambled to find out who these people were, and peripheral places like Jackson, Kentucky or Clearfield County, Pennsylvania became new objects of media attention. Amidst it all, I was having flashbacks to a dozen years earlier, when another seemingly hidden group had come out of the woodwork and become a potent political force. The they of 2004, as the quickly coalescing postelection analysis had it, was “evangelical voters” with their concern for “moral values.” They broke upon the scene as the deciding factor in that year’s sweeping Republican victories, and observers who had previously displayed little interest in religion now eagerly wanted to know about these evangelicals: who they were, what they wanted, and where they had come from. I was in graduate school at the time, and my area of focus, American religious history, typically drew yawns and blank stares from most of my colleagues. In the wake of the election, it suddenly became a matter of acute interest.

That interest subsided in time, and its fading seemed to coincide with a crystallization of the postelection analysis—2004 would be remembered for “evangelical voters,” and a dozen years from now, 2016 will likely be remembered for the “white working class.” Whether or not those explanations hold up under scrutiny is one thing (I think they are far too simplistic); what interests me more is an ellipsis in the reasoning: how could a certain group be so politically powerful and yet off the national radar of visibility? How could a group be the deciding factor in a national election and yet have its very presence met with a sense of genuine discovery?

I think these moments speak to the meager tools we have for thinking about class and about religion as they operate in American society. We’re caught off guard by the “white working class” or “evangelical voters” because our analytical training doesn’t equip us to make sense of them. This imaginative impoverishment originated in the post-World War II era, with its distinct configurations of class and religion. What had been a contentious, class-stratified society yielded, in the postwar decade, to an emergent “consumers’ republic” that defined citizens most basically by their consumption, not their production. Owning a house, an automobile, and electrical appliances became the badges of “middle class” status, and with widespread prosperity a broad swath of the population coalesced as an expansive middle class. Hardly a mouthpiece of socialism, House Beautiful could boast that “our houses are all on one level, like our class structure”—that consumer-based capitalism, not Soviet communism, was bringing the promise of a classless society.

Developing nuanced class analysis and rigorous religious categorization is long overdue. Until we break with those inherited tropes, though, the deep dynamics of class and religion will catch us off guard, displaying their potency in ripe moments that have us fumbling in surprise.

At the same time, what had been a contentious religious scene of internal divisions and competing factions began to coalesce around a common object. As the astute critic Will Herberg pointed out in his 1955 Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the focal point was the nation itself; diverse religious expressions minimized their differences and imbued national identity with a sacred aura. “In God We Trust” was officially declared to be the national motto, and “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance. The religious USA was held as a counterpoint to the secular USSR. But what, exactly, that religiousness consisted of was less than clear—indeed, the vagueness of the God-language allowed monotheists of different stripes to unite around a uniquely-favored, sacralized nation.

These tropes of the post-World War II era—classlessness and “religion in general”—have stayed with us, even as, beginning in the 1970s, the social context has undergone sweeping transformations. Developing nuanced class analysis and rigorous religious categorization is long overdue. Until we break with those inherited tropes, though, the deep dynamics of class and religion will catch us off guard, displaying their potency in ripe moments that have us fumbling in surprise.

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John Hayes is associate professor of history at Augusta University.