Sunday, January 30, 2011

Organizing and Religion

Soon after writing my post on the cultural divide and union organizing last week, I ran into this story about the Memphis branch of the United Campus Workers-CWA Local 3865 conducting a sort of pray-in as part of their campaign for a pay hike. In full disclosure, I helped start this union at the University of Tennessee back in 2000 and still do occasional work for them.

My essay was more about the disconnect between young college graduates who become organizers and the white working class. But there's little question that the cultural divide runs deeper to broader differences between working-class people and college graduates. Religion is most certainly one of those places. It's hardly revelatory to say that while many college students are quite religious, the lefty pseudo-anarchist kids who often become professional organizers today aren't usually among them. In fact, while I think most serious young organizers wouldn't be stupid enough to denigrate religion to the people they work with, I also think a whole lot of them roll their eyes and deal with it. It's hard to imagine too many young organizers embracing religion as central to their organizing mission with true and honest passion.

I don't think this is so much organizers' fault as its a reflection of the adversarial nature of religion in early twenty-first century America. Evangelical Christianity has so aligned with the Republican Party and taken a you-are-with-us-or-against-us stance to everything in American life that many young people, progressives, and other well-meaning white folk have shied away from religion entirely, or certainly don't feel comfortable talking about it publicly and using it as a central organizing strategy. I suspect that these Memphis workers are largely African-American. And there remains a different relationship between young organizers and the black working class than the white working class. So in this context, one can see it still working. It's nice to see activists centering their organizing around their own religion, but it's a reminder of what we've lost as much as it is a way forward, at least for a lot of people.