Recently, in a discussion on civic engagement and the historical profession, my advisor made a statement that catalyzed language for some of my struggles at the heart of this blog series. In his encouragement to graduate students and other faculty about why they should get involved not just in national events and national problems but in the very local banalities of our lives in Urbana- Champaign, he mentioned the old Sweedish socialist saying: “dig where you stand.” Read the local newspaper, he said, and write letters to the editor when you feel they are leaving something out. Get to know the local leaders on various local concerns. “We don’t live in New York or Berkeley,” he said. “We live here, and this community is what we make it.”
And yet, if I only stood in time and space, this challenge would seem much more manageable. I instead reflected on the separate and even warring cultural movements that I very precariously stood upon. The image that flashed before me was of myself standing on two different horses, both of them charging forward at full speed, but both knowing they would have to veer either left or right to avert the large tree straight ahead. Indeed, all politics are local, but we live in a culture that is increasingly national. Seemingly everything from news websites and entertainment media to sermon series and Vacation Bible School programs is becoming more uniform across localities. We don’t just stand in a place these days, but in a matrix of culture. And so, I wondered: If I’m not standing in the church, and I’m not standing on the leftist/progressive platform, and I’m only banging on the door to get into own field of academic scholarship, then what am I standing on? In the transient and global world of Urbana-Champaign, who is my “local” community?
The way we define our community shapes the way we identify ourselves as researchers, teachers, and people. And, the way we define our community shapes the audience we anticipate as scholars. In the case of my own historical research, this question of audience really matters, for the very essence of what I study depends on who is listening. I will try to explain.
I study working class Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their struggles to get the Churches, and/or the Labor Movement, to shout their critiques of unbridled capitaism. I find that these working class Christians found very little support in mainline churches in the late nineteenth century, and while some Christian Socialists launched campaigns to get the churches to hear them, others built their church in the labor movement. Yes, in the early 1900s, I find that the Labor Movement—especially located in the community “Labor Temple”—in many places served as a church, or the church, for working class Christians. Upton Sinclair describes this in beautiful, satirical detail in his 1922 They Call Me Carpenter. Christian Socialists, those who claimed that Jesus would not have supported the class stratification as it was, and especially those who endorsed the de-privatization of huge monopolies and trusts, insisted that most Christian Churches had colluded wrongly with the rich against the poor.
As anyone would imagine, the movement did not sit well with mainline Protestant, or Catholic, church leaders. In 1912, Charles Stelzle and several other high church leaders launched what they called the Men and Religion Forward Movement, an effort of churches in collaboration with the American Federation of Labor, to stamp out socialism in the labor movement by declaring that Jesus would never have advocated socialist radicalism. Nevermind that most Christian Socialists did not advocate violent radicalism, and in fact many of the more vulgar Marxists called them bourgeois for their different take on revolutionary class consciousness. Mainline Protestants, expressed through the Federal Council of Churches, tried to unseat the Christian Socialist movement by declaring it unchristian. Vulgar Marxists on the eve of Bolsevist Revolution, meanwhile, would try to unseat the Christian Socialists by declaring them bourgeois and not really Marxist. By the end of 1919, the movement would be undermined by its two most potentially powerful allies: the evangelical movement and the Socialist Party. However, I follow the movement through the 1920s and ‘30s and find that this working class Christian parachurch, often meeting in union locals organized in and through Labor Temples, does not go away. In fact, groups with very similar ideas—and under different names—rally in the Protestant Churches in the 1920s, and then in Catholic Churches in the 1930s. What keeps this cultural movement alive, and how does it transition so easily between Protestantism and Catholicism? What does it tell us that these working class Christians moved so easily between calling their claims political and secular (“the labor movement”) and religious (The Church)?
I find these questions fascinating, and am quite happy for them to occupy my days and evenings. However, when I wake up every morning to write, there is one, perpetual question before me: “Who ELSE cares?” Who am I most trying to persuade of the potential of alliance with the other? Clearly, the work is intended for more than one type of audience. My labor history colleagues and my evangelical friends should be drawn to different pieces of the work. However, the context for my arguments, the prefatory material, and even the title of the project need to reflect my interests in how the work will be read and understood, and I often feel like I’m riding two horses that aren’t even running in the same direction. Moreover, the process of finding communities of scholars to workshop this work leads is harder than you would think. Some people want to know if I’m really a socialist labor historian, and others want me to know that the churches weren’t really as terrible as many socialists claimed.
So, I would really like to dig where I stand, but first don’t I have to figure out where I stand? Where do you see yourself standing and digging, and how did you come to this decision?
About the author:
I'm a graduate student in History at the University of Illinois. I'm currently working on a dissertation, _Between Religion and Politics: the Working Class Religious Left, 1886-1936_.