Tag Archives: social justice

Religion, Social Justice, and Hope

Jonathan Morgan

message from heavenDon’t worry- having told the story about cotton mill owners using religious leaders to suppress mill workers’ protests, I’m not going to turn around and talk about how religion promotes social justice.  We all know that’s not always true.  But the piece on religion, cotton, and coal left with a hanging question.  Why did religion suppress social justice in one situation and support justice in the other case?  I hinted at how social context determines the shape of religion, but it’s not the only factor.  As much as religion is social, it’s also an individual phenomenon, and differences in the individual psyche play a major role in the shape religion takes.

Earlier this month, the psychologist Steven Sandage and I published an article on the relationship between social justice, religion, and hope.  Social justice can mean many different things to different.  Some see it as working for equal access to healthy foods while others are more concerned with economic injustice.  So when we’re studying social justice, we look primarily at people’s commitment, not the specific type of work they’re passionate about.  I’m not presenting our work as though it unravels the complex forces within an individual psyche that shape religion to be concerned about justice in some instances and seemingly indifferent in others – but I think it does provide a step towards understanding that process.

Our study focused on an evangelical community where we sought to understand how particular types of spirituality and particular experiences of hope related to individuals’ commitment to social justice.  Evangelicals have pretty widely diverging views on social justice.  I know, social justice may seem like a no-brainer common denominator for Christian communities, but for a disturbing example of how some argue against social justice see Smalling & Smalling.  They argue, somewhat confusingly, that working for social justice leads people to lose sight of the real Christian message about God’s love.  The same ambiguity between religion in the cotton mills and coal mines exists today, and we wanted to see what might predict the stance evangelicals take on social justice.

We measured spirituality, hope and social justice commitment each through surveys.  Of course this method of research runs into all the limitations surveys always face.  Surveys are blunt instruments – they don’t capture the complexity of each phenomenon.  We didn’t follow people around to see how their commitment to social justice was acted upon or how they nurtured hope in their lives. I’d be fascinated to read such an in-depth study.  We couldn’t capture such nuance, but we were able to collect information from over 200 people – which is a wide enough swath that any emerging patterns demand some sort of explanation.

For example, say that among 200 people, some report experiencing a lot of hope while some report experiencing very little hope.  And say that those who report experiencing hope also consistently report a strong commitment to social justice.  That sort of pattern reveals something, right?  At the very least it demands some explanation.

That correlation between hope and social justice is, in fact, one of the relationships that we found.  Another emerged between reports of positive religious coping skills and commitment to social justice.  Positive religious coping is a technical, and bulky, way to talk about using religious practices when faced with stressful situations.  If you find comfort or strength in prayer when facing grief or a challenge, then that’s an example of positive religious coping.  The people who engaged with religion in this supportive way also were more likely to report a commitment to social justice.

That’s interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, it flies in the face of Smalling and Smalling’s  concerns that social justice is purely a secular interest (not that we needed much convincing of that fact, but it’s helpful to have some empirical weight in that debate).  More importantly, it begins to answer questions about how individuals use religion in different ways.

Sandage has worked with the theologian LeRon Shults to develop a model that uses the ways we experience our relationships with each other to understand different types of spirituality.  There are a wide variety of ways people relate to each other – trust, hostility, ambivalence, and avoidance are just a few.  These different relational styles arise out of personality types and past experiences, along with current circumstances that may change our typical mode of relating.  The point of the model is that these ways of relating with each other are often closely correlated with the ways people relate to what they consider sacred.

In our research, the people who reported seeking out the sacred for support during times of stress also reported more of a commitment to social justice.  This sort of positive religious coping is reflective of a healthy, stress-buffering style of relating – like turning to friends and family in hard times.  It’s no surprise that this style of relating would be helpful if you’re engaged in the stressful work of social justice.  Activists need all the support they can get.  But it becomes more interesting to consider that our style of relating may be one of the things that actually shapes religion in such a way that it supports social justice.

Surveys can’t tell us whether a healthy relational spirituality leads to a commitment to social justice or vice-versa.  But at the very least they help us see some of the patterns surrounding religion when it becomes such different things to different people.

Religion, Cotton, & Coal

Jonathan Morgan

WorkerI 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