Reconstructing the Alliance Between Christianity and Organized Labour
It's time to pick up the missing pieces in Heath Carter's history of Christian Labour
A historian is a lot like an archaeologist trying to piece together an ancient piece of pottery. You dig through piles of miscellany, you collect scores of chunks and twice that number of shards, and, using the knowledge you've gleaned from your predecessors, you try to assemble them into a single piece, which has an equal chance of being a chamber pot as it does of being a goblet. If it's done really well, you get a story akin to a piece of kintsugi—all the more beautiful for being pieced back together. If it's done reasonably well, you'll have a vessel that leaks. If it's done poorly, you end up with a piece on which one is—how to say this nicely?—disinclined to place one's lips. But in each case the hard archaeological work can be applauded even if the final product leaves much to be desired.
Heath Carter's Union Made is a fine piece of archaeology, full of exhaustive archival research on the mixture of Christian faith, churches, capital, and labour in Chicago at the corner of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His uncovering of a trove of stories, letters, and articles, including translations of "Chicago's vast foreign-language periodical literature," is a huge accomplishment in itself, a gift to everyone interested in American history, and a huge gift to those with a keen interest in the role that Christianity played in American—North American, even—social and economic history. I'm grateful to Carter for that gift.
Yet, as masterful as this work is, the vessel Carter hands his readers suffers from ill-defined and ill-used categories, false dichotomies, and an attempt to cram current concerns and conceits into a past era where, even if analogies can be made, they don't quite fit. The result is a book that is at once fascinating and frustrating—a book made up of many fine and rare pieces arranged in a way that does not hold water.
What emerges is not a fully formed public theology straight from the foreheads of desk-tied divines, but one formed from the interplay of the gospel with the blood, sweat, and tears of people struggling to live and work together.
God, Mammon, and Contested Christianities
But let's begin with four fruitful themes that are brought into sharp relief by Carter's archaeological digging.
The first is the fact that Christianity's social message is never simply—or even primarily—communicated in theological treatises or words. Along these lines, Carter aims to "reposition working people as the makers of social Christianity," and as such, "working people played a much more essential role in this story [of social Christianity] than they have typically been accorded." I think he succeeds here, not because he provides us with all sorts of documentary evidence from individual workers (there's actually very little available), but because of his work describing the conversations that various institutions—churches, cities, newspapers, journals, trade unions—and their leaders were having about workers and their plight. What emerges from this mix of conversations, disputes, and institutional jockeying is not a fully formed public theology straight from the foreheads of desk-tied divines, but one formed from the interplay of the gospel with the blood, sweat, and tears of people struggling to live and work together.
The contested nature of Christian cultural labour—the struggle to determine how Scripture applies in the material present—is a second theme that emerges from Carter's work. Time and time again he notes "the presence of competing Christianities on the ground," going so far as to note that "by the mid-point of the gilded age, [working class communities] had become hotbeds of alternative Christianities." I think he overplays his hand here but his discussion of the way Scripture was used (and abused) by various parties in turn-of-the-century Chicago shows the degree to which the struggles were Christian struggles. The dispute was not simply over wages, but over how Americans were to interpret and engage with the person of Christ and his message—a dispute, as Carter notes repeatedly, over Christianity itself. A letter from a Baptist worker does a fine job of showing this:
I am trying to live the life of a Christian, but when I look at my bosses, who are members of the Christian denomination, I shudder and wonder how they can impose upon us poor miserable creatures throughout the week; and Sunday you will see them out with their coachman and fine span of horses, going to church, while thousands like myself are plodding along foot sore and hungry. . . . I do not believe in these strikes at all, but I have submitted my case to the proprietor personally, asking for a promotion or more wages; the reply was, "if you do not want to work for what I am paying you, there are thousands who will. . . ." Let some Christian answer this.
That last line, I suggest, gets to the heart of this book.
But before I get to that, I want to note how this quote highlights a third important theme: the enduring temptation of money and prestige to the Christian community. One of the more fascinating parts of Carter's book is his description of the movement of Chicago's churches from simple buildings to palatial structures (like these in my hometown). This movement does not necessarily imply a corruption of the gospel message—a big, beautiful church can equally serve as a signal of a culture's prioritization of things divine—but the combination of this with a massive gap between the wages of church leadership and the working class, the charging of pew rents, and the preferential treatment of the rich and powerful within the church itself calls to mind Paul's seething critique of the Corinthian church:
When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
Carter's doctoral adviser, Mark Noll, spawned a cottage industry of books that shed light on the scandal of the evangelical mind. This book is a fine reminder of the dangers of the scandal of the Christian stomach: that mammon lurks around the edges of every church budget meeting, as well as the home budget of every Christian, enticing the appetites and seeking to become our master.
A church’s labour teachings are only as vital as their teachings of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection.
The final theme that emerges is the difficulty of determining a distinctly Christian response to the travails of the working class. One of Carter's constant refrains is that of a search for, as one Chicago editorialist put it in 1888, "the pure and simple teachings of the 'despised Nazarene,'" as the antidote to Chicago's labour woes. But, as Carter notes, a simple solution was not in the offing; the "Christian faith—a growing force in everyday life—did not translate inexorably into a single posture toward the nation's industrializing economy." And more than that, Carter shows not only that there was a contest within Christianity but that the Christian response was also caught up with responses that were explicitly not Christian, or, to put it slightly differently, sprung from wells whose sources lie outside of the gospel and the church—socialism and anarchism for instance.
And yet, the plea of that unnamed Chicago Baptist worker—"let some Christian answer"—echoes on every page of the book. Does the book provide an answer?
From "Evangelical Liberalism" to Liberalism?
Not all books of history need to provide "answers," nor, to return to my opening metaphor, do all historians feel compelled to put together the pieces they have unearthed. But Carter does feel compelled.
Reading the epilogue to Union Made, the reader notes that Carter's frustration that, "having flourished first at the grassroots, social Christianity withered there too," and it withered because of a "resurgence of deeply conservative politics, buttressed in many cases by Christian faith" and because "fundamentalists [built] vast institutional and associational networks within which the Christian mission was reduced almost entirely to winning converts."
Here I think we can discern the goal of Carter's research: he hopes to revive the possibility of what Mark Noll, in a recent essay calls "liberal evangelicalism"—the marriage of a robust social vision with the traditional markers of evangelicalism—in our current age. Or, as Carter more poetically puts it: to "call forth a generation of prophets comparable to those that visited Gilded Age Chicago."
This is an admirable goal and one that I support not only with my heart but also as a vocation. But, reading the book, one wonders whether what Carter is looking for is a renewed liberal evangelicalism, or simply for the "millions of people in the pews [who see] free enterprise as a Christian imperative" to make their way to the mainline churches that "never renounced their social teachings, but in the closing decades of the twentieth century carried less and less weight outside of denominational headquarters."
Admittedly, as Noll observes in his essay, the line between mainline churches—Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians—and evangelicalism at that time was less clear, but surely it behooves a scholar to acknowledge that difficulty and attempt to help the reader understand the differences and similarities rather than applying the descriptor "evangelical" to all those groups (plus Unitarians forsooth!) without significant discussion. There is often something to be gained in the blurring of distinctions—it allows the reader to see something they are accustomed to seeing in a new light—but there is also something lost: the reader will simply see a mass of confused shapes. There were many times when I thought Carter's project was harmed by his (I think intentional) over-blurring of those lines. The evangelical reader might look at the Unitarian minister or the representative of the Wobblies described in the book and justifiably wonder how they fit in with even a liberal evangelicalism. After all, the International Workers of the World had a particular antipathy for Christianity, even going so far as to emulate and appropriate Christian hymnbooks, their orthodox elements defenestrated, for their cause. Even someone who acknowledges the complicity of the church with the pursuit of mammon can be forgiven for not seeing how these two fit into the category of social Christianity. Unless of course you're willing to extend the definition of "social Christianity" beyond its use. But in that case, you can be forgiven for putting the book down. This would be a shame, but the blame would lie with the author, not the reader.
This policy of blurring the definition of "evangelical" does not extend to the use of the terms like "progressive faith" and "conservative." Carter's use of these now contemporary, lusterless terms on historical persons, situations, and contexts, alongside his needless contrasting of various positions, is perhaps my largest frustration. Let me offer one passage that serves as an example. Speaking of the labour scene in Cardinal, Ontario, down the road from my hometown—I used to fish and swim there, and my father-in-law helped build the canal that replaced it in the 1950s—he writes:
Canal operators often cultivated partnerships with priests in the hope that they would keep rough-hewn workers in line. Sometimes the strategy worked. With unrest mounting along the Gallopes [sic] Canal . . . Father James Clarke assured management, "any assistance in my power to preserve order among the labourers is at your service." The day after Clarke rebuked the strikers, they were back at work and "perfectly peaceable." Yet other diggers flocked to the priests who denounced companies' oft-inhumane labor practices. In 1849 Father John McDermott implored the trustees of the Wabash and Erie Canal to take action when a contractor fled the line without paying the men. His letter relayed that they had been left in a "wretched and miserable condition . . . without food, without raiment, without shelter, without those common necessaries, the absence of which will press heavily upon them during this cold and inclement season" and went on to urge the trustees "to see that [the men] will be treated with kindness, and I will add from myself, with justice."
The "yet" in that paragraph, the needless contrasting of order and justice, the subtle editorial notes (the diggers "flocked" to justice priests while the order priests "keep rough-hewn workers in line"), the routine noting that clerics concerned with the loss of the working class in their congregations were motivated by the loss of political power rather than genuine theological concern—these features of Carter's writing are all likely to win friends with current "progressives," whose prior commitments will be confirmed, but they are unlikely to convince anyone else, let alone the millions in the pews who once might have fit the stereotype of the simply soul-concerned evangelical/fundamentalist but don't any longer. Those who thought that in reading Carter's book they might plumb the past for a Christian response to labour concerns that doesn't walk in lockstep with the contemporary—and now thoroughly secularized—AFL-CIO have to work hard to find it. It's there, but you have to read through Carter's editorializing, and there's a good chance you might think your options are simply the current AFL-CIO/mainline church response or what you were taught in the pews.
This is a shame, because I think Christianity has something unique to offer both a moribund North American labour movement, and a North American society that is increasingly concerned about what to do with the challenges that come from both secularism and inequality. But if we're to actually live out that unique offering, it is likely to require two things.
The first is a willingness to look straight in the face the reasons why mainline congregations lost influence. Did mainline congregations really "never renounce their social teachings"? With the exception of the Catholic Church and a few parishes within the other denominations noted, I don't think anyone can say that they did. They might still be "pro-labour," but most of these now lack the robust vigour that comes from orthodoxy. A church's labour teachings are only as vital as their teachings of the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and, yes, other things. As I note elsewhere, Christian social teaching is a part of an integral whole, and if you lop off one part, you're likely to lose the whole thing. Why? Because at the heart of its labour teachings is a particular view of the human person. Work is a human endeavour, and if on Sunday or in your catechism you are unwinding the church's teachings on sin, forgiveness, and the church itself, you are very likely to end up with a view of work, the workplace, and the marketplace that is stunted and dying.
It strikes me that Carter's project would be improved by an exploration of not just how liberal evangelicalism became "evangelicalism" but also how liberal evangelicalism became, as Noll puts it, simply liberalism. And lest anyone think that this is a concern of those on the right, it is a project that has already been started by Lew Daly of the left-leaning think tank Demos. He attributes the decline of labour's influence to the decline of a vital Christianity. Anyone who reads Carter's book should, at the very least, read Daly's article alongside it.
The second is to return to the full breadth of Christian social teaching on labour. I say this with caution, but it is not enough to turn to the pages of the Bible; one has to explore the thinking of the church, institutionally embodied, throughout the ages. A look in this direction will likely produce a community of people for whom there is no easy constituency—that look like aliens to those on both the right and the left today, but who, through their labour, testify faithfully to the teachings of that despised Nazarene.Subscribe