Matthew Pehl’s The Making of Working-Class Religion is a recent volume in the series “The Working Class in American History” from the University of Illinois Press that originated in the 1970s. The series has featured analyses of worker strikes, gender, and a variety of snapshots of eras and events that shaped working class identity in the United States. It is impressive that the series is so long-standing when it seems that the resurgence of interest in social class from a religious studies perspective is relatively new. Pehl’s contribution, released in 2016, makes it a particularly timely piece as well, as US scholars and citizens are levied with accusations that they do not understand the culture or struggles of the working class.
While the title of this volume implies a broader description of the formation of working-class religion, Pehl’s volume digs deeply into the roots of working class religion in Detroit, Michigan in the first half of the twentieth century. Detroit serves as a compelling setting for his analysis, as the auto industry in particular attracted immigrants, southern African Americans, and poorer southern whites with the promise of work and stability, all of whom played a role in the making of working-class religion. He explains that while Detroit also included northern Protestants and Jews, northern Protestants had a different, more mainline flavor, and Jews were more likely to pursue work in the professions, even while they shared the ostracization of the working class.
Pehl presents historical description and sociological analysis simultaneously, demonstrating the ways in which class, race, religion, gender, and ethnicity do not simply affect each other, but actually construct each other. The need to protect and perform a certain kind of masculinity, for example, is not simply rooted in one area of identity, but comes out of labor work and is reinforced by religion. Or perhaps it comes out of religious identity and is reinforced by labor work. It is in this way that Pehl’s description of identity is intentionally complicated and ambiguous, avoiding explicit declarations of meaning. Pehl’s thorough sourcing of data from the social sciences in addition to history and religious studies makes this complexity possible.
The chapters are roughly divided into time periods and the effects of working class religion on society. This results in a thorough demographic description of a period of around twenty years followed by a description of the socio-political consequences of the time. The emphasis on Detroit creates a detailed account of a certain place in a certain time that will best serve those who have reason to pursue such a comprehensive analysis—whether this is a drive to understand urban working class history or a connection to Detroit itself. It is important to understand that the emphasis on Detroit in this book affects the content, even though there is no indication in the title that the content is so specific. I myself was drawn to the book because of a scholarly interest in, and family connection to, the Appalachian region, but this book does not cover regional variances in working-class religion. I am left curious about the differences between urban working-class religion and rural working-class religion, a distinction this book does not cover.
What Pehl does accomplish is an analysis that effectively underscores the ambivalent relationship between working-class life and religion, outlining the times in which religion may have simply comforted workers and other times when religion pushed workers to challenge their lot in life and seek economic justice. This was accomplished through descriptions of labor unions, clergy and theological interaction with unions, church attempts to reach workers socially through sport and entertainment, and the complicated power dynamics between classes, occupations, genders, races, and ethnicities. For this reason, Pehl’s work is an important contribution to the current drive to understand the working class in the United States.