The Pew and The Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class

by Ben Levenson

A couple of months ago IWJ received a donation from the editors of “The Pew and The Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class.” One of the editors, Professor Chris Cantwell told me that he and Professors Heath Carter and Janine Giordano-Drake decided that they wanted to donate the royalties they’d received from sales of their book on behalf of the contributors to the collection. All agreed that IWJ was the organization that most aligned with their values.

After being picking up the collection, I couldn’t agree more.

This set of essays offers exciting and fresh narratives of how working people around the country used and interpreted religion to help deal with the challenges of poverty, labor, and social change. The collection makes a bolder claim, still. As the editors write in the introduction, “in order to understand America’s industrial order, one must attend to the religious lives of working people.” They argue that we have to look to the workers, the parishioners, the people who lived in the space between the pew and the picket line to truly understand American society.

The essays help give texture and color to this argument. They tell stories that are both vivid narratives and sympathetic to the struggles of workers and common people. They highlight, “the continued importance of the local, the specific, and the particular conditions of working class religious life” and challenge “scholars [who] have often sought to make sweeping generalizations about both Christianity and working people.” So we get accounts that range from across the 19th and 20th centuries from the Northeast to Southwest and in communities of various ethnicities. One essay, for example, describes how Catholic priests opposed the Bracero program, which brought Mexican laborers to the US for seasonal farmwork in the mid 20th century and forced them into brutal and precarious working conditions. Alongside that, we hear a story about preachers and organizers in Cairo, IL fighting racist policies by mixing scripture and politics in the post civil rights era.  

These essays are fascinating and also speak to a principle that animates our work at IWJ. They show the resilience, the creativity, and the power of working people to shape American society. On top of that, they point to the vital importance of religion in working people’s lives and their ability to use religion as a source of strength. For us this a crucial insight. We believe that when working people organize and when they call upon faith traditions for inspiration, they win.

In these times when our visions for justice and freedom feel so far away, this not only a welcome reminder, but a nudge to continue organizing, marching, and acting on our calls to justice.

Please join us on September 8th at 6:30 pm at Chicago Temple for a special event with Professors Cantwell, Carter, and Giordano Drake. They’ll discuss their work, our current political situation, and the ways we can continue to call upon faith and traditions of organizing in these challenging times. Reserve your tickets here

Ben Levenson is the Development Associate at Interfaith Worker Justice.