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 opportunity 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 humor 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 general.

You Have Seen Their Faces was a book published in the 1930's with the intention of photographing 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 express the 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 readers actually 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
          "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, black 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 fashion and 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 class of 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 the 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 Dr. 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 self 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.