I have much to say on the topic of religion and class, but let me begin with a disclaimer. I know people who experienced the same churches I did and did not come away angry, feeling they were warped by them. So I recognize that more than one experience is possible.
Like many poor and working class people, I went to Pentecostal churches for a good part of my life. They were “Holy Roller” churches, where we talked in tongues, laid on hands for healing, and believed the end of the world was just around the corner. Some of these churches considered dancing a sin. Much of my time was spent worrying to the point of extreme anguish about sins I now consider not even sins (masturbation) or ridiculously petty (swearing). We went to churches where we were yelled at, called out, condemned, terrified – taught to think of ourselves as bad and low and evil.
Following Orders Monday to Sunday
As early as college, maybe high school, I hypothesized about all that shouting and raging from the pulpit. Here is one theory. People who are yelled at all day at work, who know what the words “the boss” mean (in a way that someone who has never had to follow orders might struggle to understand) must feel comfortable in a religion that also yells at them.
It’s familiar. You don’t talk back to the boss, and you don’t talk back to the minister. Is it that you learn to love the whip? I don’t know. Just as out in “the world,” poor and working class people were “no account” and low as worms, so in church, they found a mirror. I found that churches encouraged passivity except in the constant recruitment of more members, “saving souls.” Cult-like, churches wanted all of their members’ time and a lot of their money through the 10% “tithe” even poor people were expected to contribute.
Bible Class Stories
But there’s so much more to it. Being “saved” also raised the low of the earth to a superior position. It was one way, perhaps the only way, that they could feel they were better than rich people. Yes, rich people might lord it over them here below, but in heaven, all would be reversed. Some ministers tried to find their way around the social criticism of “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” After all, these churches were very conservative. I remember one minister saying that the “needle” was really a sort of rope halter that it would be possible for a camel, with difficulty, to step through.
But the social gospel of the New Testament could not be set aside. The story of Lazarus, the beggar, whose wounds were licked by the dogs, and the rich man who would not spare him even the crumbs from his table, could not be rewritten. It was stark. When the rich man in hell begged for Lazarus in heaven to send him a few drops of water, he was told, “Remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.”
You don’t talk back to the boss, and you don’t talk back to the minister.”
So many hymns talked about getting through life with God’s help to an eventual reward. They spoke to people who worked and worked and never got ahead, whose muscles ached, who could not afford even some of the basics.
The world was an evil place – that was hard to dispute – and you couldn’t change it. Only when Jesus returned would the world be permanently changed. In the meantime, you could only endure it, return good for evil, and wait for death. “We’ll soon be done with troubles and trials. I’m going to sit down beside my Jesus, sit down and rest a little while.” What a small, limited wish: to rest. And too, to be recognized and brought close to someone important, to be included in the inner circle.
“When death has come and taken our loved ones, leaving our world so lonely and drear, then do we wonder why others prosper living so wicked year after year… Farther along, we’ll understand why.” There’s a protest here of injustice, but also an acceptance of life on earth as something to wait out.
A Place to “Matter”
People who never got to travel much, whose work lives were routine and without honor, turned to the life of the imagination, living in Bible stories, seeing life through a lens of Old and New Testament drama. Many poor and working class people chose Bible names for their kids. Abraham and John the Baptist were as real to them as relatives.
Onto the meagerness and difficulty of life was grafted another story, a story of miracles and wonders, of intense suffering and intense courage. Though I hotly reject most of the worldview of those churches, I did finally acknowledge one gift: the perspective that life was intensely meaningful, and that for all our sin and weakness, we were significant.
On the street and at school, we didn’t matter. In church, we mattered.