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Alone and Forsaken

Southern churches and the myth of redemptive Depressions

In 2005, my family home burned down. It was an old Sears Roebuck Victorian that my parents spent over twenty years remodeling a bit at a time. The fire happened in June in Alabama; I was asleep in my older sister’s bedroom while she was at the beach because she had an air conditioner in her room, and I didn’t in mine. I slept in her bed whenever I could, which saved my life when the fire started in an outlet in my room. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina came through and flooded what was left of the house’s ground level. We had insurance and were able to eventually rebuild, after a stint in a house with possums in the attic, but I remember the stifling silence of our small town’s churches during those years. Our own church was microscopic, with a few families and older people who could only offer the shirts off their backs—and many did. But I knew then, without question, that churches weren’t a social safety net. If we needed help, the church wouldn’t be the provider.

Those memories came back to me recently when, for a Southern history seminar, I read Alison Collis Greene’s 2015 study No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene tells the story behind what she calls “the myth of the redemptive depression.” There is some truth to the myth, she notes in her opening. “Members of families and communities indeed turned to one another in their hardship, and many also turned to their churches for solace, for support, for meaning.” Yet in the Mississippi Delta, people quickly saw “the inadequacy of families, communities, and churches full of poor people to aid one another in their time of mutual distress. The Great Depression gave lie to the toxic notion that responsibility for poverty lies with the poor rather than with systems of oppression that make a mockery of the American dream.” With a global pandemic and economic recession—if not full-scale depression—looming, Greene’s study of religious charity and political power speaks to life and death concerns in the nation’s most vulnerable regions—and sheds light on what we’re all about to face.

This history is important for Southern communities today, especially in places where churches are taking tithes online but will go on to offer no direct relief aid to their congregations.

Her monograph primarily focuses on the roles of Arkansas-Mississippi Delta churches in both opening the way to New Deal policies and organizing for communal relief. Her history begins in 1929, when Southerners in the region began reaching out to their churches for material relief at the onset of the Great Depression. Looking at mainline Protestant churches as well as premillennialist churches (or fervent religious groups such as Pentecostals), she shows how these factions participated in, shaped, and resisted New Deal relief programs and policies. Initially, some Protestant establishment leaders were in denial, arguing that “nobody is starving in America” or, perhaps even worse, they “attributed the Great Depression to individual moral failures and a general lack of commitment to Christianity.” By focusing on the “spiritual famine” before them, as well as revivalism and evangelizing rather than directly addressing the suffering of their congregations, the Protestant establishment ceded power to the New Deal coalition and relief programs.

On the other hand, the fervent religious factions focused on personal salvation rather than political intervention, which seemed to be temporarily comforting for those in need of spiritual salvation during a national crisis. Yet after the inadequacies of various charitable organizations were exposed, Greene says, “the growing unease about the adequacy of churches, charities, and volunteer agencies in serving the needy necessarily prompted a related conversation about the justness of a government that supported struggling industries but ignored the millions of workers put out by those industries.” So, despite the conservative Southern evangelical unease with socialistic government aid, both factions recognized the inadequacies of private and church charity and seemed to initially acquiesce to expanding programs of financial relief during the New Deal. “The Great Depression revealed the inability of American religious institutions to care for the needy in the midst of crisis, and it opened new opportunities for the state to take on the burden instead,” Greene writes.

Later, Greene’s book turns to the reshaping of American national memory—specifically, how the New Right emerged after World War II to rewrite the narrative of the church’s failures during the Depression, and how the church further aligned with the nation’s commitment to capitalist industry in the late twentieth century. The new story encouraged resistance to socialized poverty initiatives, and it framed the state as having gotten in the way of effective church charity

In these rosy new narratives, the Great Depression brought suffering and sorrow, but also thrift and humility. It did precisely what religious authorities had hoped it would: it stripped away life’s superfluities and brought people together, and to God. The Great Depression brought redemption—or it would have, if only Franklin Roosevelt had not interfered.

That’s the redemptive myth, and it fortified the falsehood that governmental assistance was unnecessary, and even harmful to individual initiative and religious charity. This history is important for Southern communities today, especially in places where churches are taking tithes online but will go on to offer no direct relief aid to their congregations. And communities will continue to send their prayers, find social solace in their church communities, and listen to sermons about their communities coming together, all while these churches have no loaves and fishes to spare.

My great grandmother kept her fingernail clippings in a glass jar. She wouldn’t let us throw away the Styrofoam trays the grocery store meat came on, and there was a room in the back of the house, the doorway covered by an old bedsheet, where she stored all of her spoils like a dragon collecting gold. I was seven or eight when we started fighting over Happy Meal toys. She wouldn’t let me have them because she needed them. Lona grew up in Alabama during the Great Depression, and that trauma followed her throughout her life. Yet I still remember her saying things like “we didn’t know we were poor,” or “the Depression didn’t come down here.”

Lona didn’t have much patience for church or, more specifically, church ladies. Her trauma did manifest in hoarding, which I assumed was common among Depression survivors, though there’s some disagreement in the psychology world about the link between hoarding and privation. Her time of hardship also resulted in her detachment from the community. Scarred by seeing her family claw their way through the Depression, my great-grandmother eschewed communal outreach as many people from the Greatest Generation did. She lived on a $660-per-month Social Security check. She bought her tiny shotgun house for cheap with life insurance money after her husband’s death. A paltry welfare safety net got her through almost thirty years of her life—and the churches she was shamed for never attending didn’t. She saw that disparity, and she saw those who denied it as sanctimonious. If we consider Greene’s study of community relief efforts during the Depression, it makes sense that my great-grandmother would have a survivalist mentality.

While many communities in the South are now organizing to fight their neighbors’ displacement and joblessness, many churches are simply moving to “virtual” worship services as their congregations face unprecedented instability and suffering. These moves to online church won’t mean much when only a little more than 62 percent of the rural South has access to internet service, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Now, with a conservative executive branch that sanctions temporary alms in a time of emergency but is hell-bent on resisting any and all New Deal relief policies, the churches have yet another opportunity to preach about redemption and charity on the eve of a new and sudden economic depression. Many will hew to the now-entrenched conservative line that “socialistic” approaches to poverty and health care will somehow corrupt the human spirit.

Last week, Mike Huckabee (a former governor of Arkansas and Southern Baptist pastor) weirdly tweeted, “Those of us from rural south know how to handle toilet paper shortage. Eat more corn on the cob! The corn isn’t important, but the cobs are free and work great! (Just don’t flush them!) You’re welcome!” And YouTube and Facebook have exploded with videos of people fighting over toilet paper and other essentials in stores. Though dealing with a crisis with humor is normal, I can’t help but think about Southerners who have been so immersed in generations of poverty that their response is directly related to scarcity mentality and fight or flight instinct. My people know that their church won’t be there to provide for its congregation, and there’s little chance that social welfare will effectively come to the rescue either. The emotional weight of being alone and forsaken by both the community you’ve vested your life to and the limited social safety nets the government offers is yet another trauma that vulnerable Southern communities will have to endure. So, yes, Mike Huckabee’s odd tweet about wiping asses with corn cobs speaks volumes about what those of us from the rural South know and expect from our government—that we’ll be expected to survive, find our bootstraps, fend for ourselves, and listen to churches and politicians tell us that the experience was somehow redemptive.

Churches have yet another opportunity to preach about redemption and charity on the eve of a new and sudden economic depression.

When I was a baby in a crib in the house that eventually burned down, I teethed on a corn cob that occasionally had a little whiskey on it. I wouldn’t let my parents take it away from me—and I’d fight them if they tried. I’d sleep with the corn cob, slobbering all over it, until my mom could coax it out of my sticky hands. Though I’d like to hate the hoarders and laugh at those stockpiling toilet paper, I can’t help but think of these as responses to decades of trauma inflicted by poverty.

In a hilarious sketch, comedian Brent Terhune waxes poetic about the church’s role in the coronavirus pandemic. While sitting in front of a jumbo-sized pack of toilet paper, he says, “What on flat-Earth is safer than a church? I say good! Get sick! It’s God’s will be done! God is in control—you take all the precautions you want, but God is in control.” As his MAGA-hatted satire goes on, he gets more adamant about the church’s tendency to take rather than provide: “The church is going to get their money one way or another. A church is the original GoFundMe—they’re going to call, text, e-mail, start an OnlyFans account, they don’t give a damn, they’re getting their money!” That’s an astute point to make at this moment, considering that evangelical churches have powerful sway in national and local politics. In a recent town hall with Fox News, Donald Trump said he wanted to reopen the country and see “packed churches” by Easter. Though some churches will heed the warnings of health officials and stay closed, many won’t—they’ll get their Easter offering come hell or high fevers.

This virus doesn’t know borders, but access to essential goods, financial relief, and having a hospital in your home county does make a difference—and we know how much regional inequity will alter the outcomes. There are large wealthy churches around the country that will be able to help their congregants; the Mormon Church, for one, is famously wealthy, and the Catholic Church has long supported far-reaching poverty-relief through Catholic Charities. But other churches have either absolved themselves of relief efforts for their congregations, or they will not be in much of a position to help. And for many Southerners, the church is the bedrock of the community that they are told to depend on. Greene’s history of the church and the Depression shows us what we can expect from churches in the coming months of crisis in our communities. The church certainly won’t be there for my Southern community, but history shows that they will try to convince us that they were.