Hard, Hard Religion

Interracial Faith in the Poor South

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John Hayes
New Directions in Southern Studies
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2017.
     250 pages.
     $27.96.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469635323.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South, John Hayes probes a historically contingent convergence in which poor black and poor white Christians engaged in a shared folk Christianity in the post-reconstructionist United States South. Thus Hayes calls into question the hegemonic dominance of the prevailing wisdom regarding race and class under Jim Crow. Specifically, according to Hayes’s diagnosis, what is exposed are the limitations of imagining race as the exclusive identity marker around which collective human engagement emerged in the American South. The folk Christianity of the poor, in contrast to the respectability Christianity of the wealthy, provided a shared cultural and spiritual imagination that allowed a “grassroots religious creativity” (5) to emerge.

This is not, as we know, the story of an emerging class consciousness which produced well-organized regional resistance to the impoverishment, violence, and alienation corresponding to the increasing submission of day-to-day life to market logic. Instead, Hayes seeks to uncover the creative utilizations of an inherited religious tradition through which the region’s poor shared with and learned from each other across the color line, as they strived to negotiate a life of dignity in spite of their systematic disempowerment. It is this religious creativity, and not shared material conditions alone, says Hayes, that allowed for collective engagement across the color line. Thus Hayes argues for the relevance of what he calls “the spiritual element” that helped generate glimpses of interracial solidarity in the US South, which cannot simply be dismissed as false consciousness.

These arguments, however, are primarily working in the background as Hayes devotes the bulk of his attention to particular expressions of “folk religion,” a category he deploys to highlight two themes: “the largely hidden processes by which this culture was sustained and disseminated, and the socially marginalized position of its practitioners” (15). Because of these features, the folk Christianity that Hayes seeks to highlight has likewise been marginalized in the narration of the history of the US South. So, Hayes turns to literature (chapter 1), folk songs (chapters 2 and 5), personal conversion narratives (chapter 3), material culture (chapter 4), photographs documented by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), as well as various other recordings of oral traditions and personal biographies. Hayes weaves together these various threads into an image of an interracial religious convergence that more often than not was obscured by the dominant evangelical ethos that wed itself to segregation and white supremacy.

At times Hard, Hard Religion struggles not to sound like an apologetic for a bygone radical Christianity, rooted in an interracial collective imagination. Hayes is explicit that his work should not be read as nostalgia. Likewise, I would add that it should not be read as an attempt to isolate some radical kernel of the Christian faith that needs rediscovering. Neither the US South nor the expressions of Christianity that emerged there under Jim Crow are static, hegemonic entities. And by calling that representation into question, Hard, Hard Religion offers a glimpse of the remarkable creativity, passion, and tenacity of the poor Christians—black and white—who were thrown into a world that, in a variety of sometimes exclusive and sometimes overlapping ways, was predicated on their marginalization. It is in these spaces that a particular religious tradition begins to appear less as means of escaping one’s troubles, and more as a tool utilized by poor regions in order to build for themselves a better life in this world.    

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryne Beddard is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Hayes is Associate Professor of History at Augusta University.

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