Historically, working class whites have been evangelical Protestants. In
the early years of America, poor whites had a very low
literacy rate. The majority of the class existed as sharecroppers and tenant farmers with little
or inclination for
formal education nor organized religion. Lacking the ability to read the Bible, and receiving no
formal explanations of Christianity, their religious experience was based on trips to tent revivals
and outdoor camp meetings.
As far back as the 1830's, we see parodies of such lower class religious revivals in Southwestern
sketches. Sweaty Protestant ministers leading congregations in unruly and spirit filled altar calls
are the normal image, typically coupled with shady ushers taking the offering. These depictions
are demeaning to the congregation as well as to the ministers. This stereotype has clearly
survived in modern day treatment of television evangelists and fundamentalist preachers, in
You Have Seen Their Faces was a book published in the 1930's with the intention of
working class whites during the Great Depression in order to make the
general population socially aware of the plight of farmers. These dignified images are captured
in photos taken by Margaret
Bourke-White. However, her husband, Erskine Caldwell, is
responsible for the under photo captions which are placed in quotation marks under each image.
The sentiments under the photographs are shockingly condescending. They show the people
speaking in terms that are self-deprecating, racist, ignorant and shallow. There is only a tiny
disclaimer at the front of the edition, explaining, "The legends under the pictures are intended to
authors' own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to
reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons." Such a statement should immediately raise
one's hackles, particularly after you read the attitude of the quotations and consider how few
took the time to examine this little blurb before delving into the arresting photographs.
| "Mrs. Peterson is growing thinner"|| "Mildred has on a new pair of shoes"
One section is on the topic of religion and includes powerful photographs of church settings,
and white. I have included two from the white church service, to give an idea of the striking
treatment of the photograph's subjects. These women are belittled into a state of concern over
weight. Rather than using these images to recognize the importance and sacredness of their
religious belief in the functioning of their personal thought and community life, it is used as a
matter of derision.
Moving into modern time, Paul Fussell's Class, includes a section on the way to judge the
a city by its religious fundamentalism:
Another way to judge a place's undesirability is to measure the degree to which
religious fundamentalism is identified with it. Akron, Ohio...is fatally known as the home of the
Rex Humbard Ministry, the way Greenville, South Carolina, is known as the seat of Bob Jones
University, and Wheaton, Illinois, is identified with Wheaton College and remembered thus as
forcing ground of the great Billy Graham. Likewise Garden Grove, California, locus of the Rev.
Robert Schuller, famous for his automatic smile and his cheerful Cathedral of glass. Can a
higher-class person live in Lynchburg, Virginia? Probably not, since that town is the origin of
Jerry Falwell's radio emissions, the site of his church and the mailing address for free-will
offerings. Indeed, it seems that no high-class person can live in any place associated with
religious prophecy or miracle...(p.37)
And we all know the general assumptions about the South. Just take a look at the geographical
distribution of Baptist (read fundamentalist) churches in America. Spiritual aspects of life are
generally ignored by the mainstream rhetoric in America today. There is a common denial of
faith, hope and belief in a higher being.
The working class white in America has retained this connection
in their daily lives, if not in practice, always in rhetoric and core beliefs. Maybe it is due to an
attachment to things not manmade; nature, family, and community. It is acceptable to feel a
responsibility to others and to a higher being -- a way of thinking often looked down upon in the
centered world of psychology and independent business people. Yet outsiders use their
evangelical Protestantism as another area for derision, rather than accepting this as a sacred,
valued and sincere belief in spiritual lives.