I often write about how religion is an ambiguous, complex, hard-to-define thing. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I end up only referencing the complexity of religion along the way to criticizing science for treating religion too simply. But I never really give examples of that complexity. They’re simple enough to find: religion helped spark the civil rights movement in the US… and the Crusades in Medieval Europe. These large-scale examples are common knowledge, and are often wielded by pundits either for or against religion. But using examples at that scale might make us lose sight of the local, everyday ambiguity of religion.
So, instead of Crusades, I’m going to talk about coal and textiles.* The Industrial Revolution dramatically changed many communities. Throughout the piedmont of the southern US, cotton mills went up and were busy producing textiles. In the mountains of southern Appalachia, mines were opened and people were busy extracting coal. And we’re talking about the Bible Belt, so a rural evangelical form of Protestantism set the religious atmosphere for both communities. But when a series of pressures in the 1920s and 1930s strained the relationship between workers and their bosses, religion worked in two very different ways.
For the cotton mills, the 1920s brought along a steady decline in the market following World War I. This, in combination with increased competition and lower prices for goods, led mill owners to cut wages, fire employees, and then demand more work from those left. This was not a good work environment. During this time the way to try and make things better was to unionize.
So the textile workers tried that. They began strikes and professional organizers showed up from New England to try and help. The Loray Mill Strike is the most famous example from this movement. But these efforts were short-lived. Local citizens were outraged and attacked the picket lines. Things quickly turned violent, with people killed on both sides. You can gain a sense of the atmosphere from reading about the trials that ensued, where those accused of killing strikers were acquitted and the workers accused of conspiracy and murder were found guilty. It was a lousy time to be a mill worker.
This may seem far from the purpose at hand, which, you’ll remember, is providing an example of the ambiguity of religion. But this story’s relevance to religion should quickly become apparent when I add the details that many of the mobs sang hymns as they attacked the strikers. Some preachers preached against the strikes, but more simply ignored them and tried to turn the workers’ attention away from the strikes. The popular sentiment was that union organizers were attempting to destroy religion. And this sentiment may have been right – the union organizers were a group of communists who largely saw religion as the opiate Marx described. There are accounts of one organizer kicking a Bible out of the hands of a mill worker’s hands, saying- “No one believes that book now.”
What began as a push for better wages and working conditions became a battle between communism and religion. The striking mill workers were associated with Marx, and therefore the religious sensibilities of the Piedmont community sided with the owners against the workers. The irony of the whole situation is that the union organizers’ assumptions about religion became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Religion became an opiate, preserving the status quo, in part because the organizers aligned themselves against it.
This didn’t have to be the case.
To see more of the ambiguity of religion, we’ll travel a little west to the southern Appalachian mining communities. This isn’t an arbitrary comparison – the two communities were remarkably similar. Both mining camps and mill towns were isolated communities, made up almost entirely of workers and their families. In both cases the companies built and controlled the schools and churches for the community, along with the only available stores. In other words, both groups were pretty well cut off from other resources and influences. But this isolation isn’t the only similarity; both groups also felt the stress of low wages, hard work, and poor living conditions. When they were striking they were expressing a very real frustration and need.
The control mill companies had over the church allowed them to use religion to suppress or deflect their workers’ frustration. But this strategy backfired in the coal camps. Company ministers in the coal camps preached against unions as “ungodly and wicked.” Extolling a strong work ethic, they called union organizers “human lice.” But the miners weren’t fooled. As one miner said, “We are beginning to see the light for ourselves and realize that the company preachers are selling us out to the bosses for a mere mess of the [porridge].”
New religious leaders arose within the groups of miners and held clandestine services. They would pray at picket lines and disrupt the company church services. Baptist and Holiness churches outside of the company towns set up soup kitchens for evicted miners and helped support the strikes. All of this work gave a religious and moral legitimacy to the miners’ struggle.
Think about the stark contrast between this situation and the mill towns where the workers’ struggle was religiously condemned. In the mining communities, religion became a source of strength, giving the workers cohesion and a legitimacy that fostered their collective action. Here religion was a liberator, not an opiate. It’s no coincidence that the miners were able to successfully organize and sustain unions while the mill strikes were short-lived protests.
This is not to suggest that religion was the primary cause of success or failure in either case. There are a multitude of historical, social, environmental, and political factors that affected how each situation turned out. In fact, it’s safe to argue that these factors also determined, at least in part, whether religion became a liberator or an opiate. But this doesn’t change the fact that religion was both. This southern rural evangelical Protestantism worked in one instance to suppress workers’ protests, and in the other instance to support very similar protests. That’s the ambiguity of religion. So whenever you hear someone talking about how religion is bad or religion is good, don’t talk about the Crusades. Tell them about cotton and coal – and how religion can be many things.
*This story comes from the sociologist Dwight Billings’ work, which relies on two books:
Liston Pope’s Millhands and Preachers
David Corbin’s Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields