Book Review: The Making of Working-Class Religion by Matthew Pehl How Do We Cultivate Working Class Humanism?

When 5 percent of the US population owns 63 percent of the country’s wealth and the bottom 40 percent of the population has none, and as the US middle class continues to shrink, the humanist movement should  focus on creating a more equitable society. To engage with the struggles of the poor and working class, however, humanists may need to better understand why the poor are more likely to be religious, as well as assert humanism’s own background within working class movements. To this end, a history lesson may be in order.

Matthew Pehl’s The Making of Working-Class Religion, part of the University of Illinois Press’s Working Class in American History series, gives an overview of the ways in which working class communities in Detroit, Michigan, constructed their religious identities and also examines the contradictory roles religion played within the Detroit labor movement. The book traces religion’s intersections with class, race, and gender from 1910, when Detroit emerged as an American center of industry, through the 1970s’ civil rights riots. Though the religious communities in Detroit were as diverse as the many immigrants who flocked to the city, Pehl gives the reader succinct overviews of each of these religious traditions and how they were related to the class and racial identities of their followers. Though some of these religious traditions were distinct, such as the storefront congregations of Black workers compared to the Catholic parishes of Polish immigrants, all of them served to create and reinforce meaning within workers’ lives. Religious communities provided workers with a sense of identity while allowing ethnic immigrant communities to retain their traditions, gave them access to “miracle cures” when other forms of healthcare were inaccessible, and also sustained workers with a sense of respectability and responsibility.

Broadly speaking, Pehl argues that religion served to ease tensions, particular those relating to gender, within working-class life. For example, though factory work made men feel emasculated by reducing them to mechanized cogs on an assembly line, religion emphasized the importance of the family and the man’s work as legitimating his authority over the household. Though many women also worked and some even took on positions of leadership within their churches, their religious communities placed the utmost importance on their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

Pehl emphasizes that religion was used both by the unions and the factory owners to either encourage worker resistance or worker acquiescence. Some churches embraced the social gospel and taught that not only should the faithful anticipate the afterlife but also endeavor to make this life fair and just for all. However, many adherents of the social gospel focused their work on charity and opposed more systemic actions, such as unionizing, to improve workers’ conditions. Many workers worried that joining a union would violate their religions’ teachings. The American Federation of Labor and the United Auto Workers, however, often conducted their outreach to religious communities to encourage churches to ally with them.

Despite some overlap between faith and the labor movement, some workers with more radical leanings began opposing the authoritarian hierarchies of the churches. Pehl also includes an anecdote about Minister I. Paul Taylor whose preaching advocated for decent wages and pensions. Taylor eventually left the ministry entirely (though he likely did not leave his faith) to found the Detroit Labor Forum.

Pehl traces these tensions, contradictions, and coalitions between religion and unions through the Great Depression and the McCarthy era. He then concludes with the rise of the Black civil rights movement in Detroit and the social and economic shifts within the city that precipitated a race-based rather than class-based understanding of inequality and injustice. He notes that while labor leaders had frequently opposed racism, specific hardships of Black workers were often dismissed or disregarded in favor of a universal condemnation of discrimination. While the rise of automation in the Detroit factories was detrimental to all workers, it combined with urban renewal to hit Black communities particularly hard. Whites moved out of the city, and while many of their religious leaders, particularly Catholic priests, urged them to denounce racism, their parishioners did not always agree.

While The Making of Working-Class Religion provides a comprehensive overview of the role religion played within working class and civil rights movements in Detroit, Pehl’s history is more descriptive than analytical. The book, only 245 pages, has such a broad scope that little room is left to discuss the wider significance of Detroit’s labor movement or to relate the relationship between religion and labor to today’s social movements. Pehl’s book is also aimed at an academic audience, so some readers may find the writing a bit dry. However, the history of religion and labor in Detroit the book provides is illuminating in its ability to highlight certain recurring themes, such as the tensions between churches and unions, that continue to crop up within the city. Pehl also does a remarkable job of focusing his analysis on class while also giving studious attention to its intersections with race and gender. The Making of Working-Class Religion may primarily be focused on class, but it doesn’t shun identity politics or blithely assume that all workers undergo the same experiences. Rather, Pehl recognizes that these class experiences are mediated by a worker’s identity as Black or white, woman or man.

Humanists who read the book may be left asking, “Where do we go from here?” The civil rights protests in 1970s Detroit are still echoing in Black Lives Matter’s continued cry for justice, and because the economic pains of the 1970s and ’80s eventually led to current US policies of austerity, the United States economy and society also looks very different today. Rather than having an ambivalent relationship with labor, the most vocal of religious movements in the United States seem firmly allied with corporate interests, rather than the interests of working people.

Pehl’s purpose, however, is not to point a way forward but merely to look back and observe the role that religion played in bringing the labor movement to its present state. Knowing this history, the reader is left to pave a way into the future. Given the declining role of religion in American culture coupled with increasing economic inequality, the humanist movement should take on a greater role in examining class inequities and incorporating labor issues into our activism. A previous generation of humanist leaders, such as Corliss Lamont and Asa Philip Randolph, were just as concerned with working class issues as they were with church-state separation. The humanist movement would do well to revisit its Leftist roots and begin to consider how, going forward, we can develop a working-class humanism.