Stephanie Y. Mitchem

This issue's focus on social class and religion is one that is overdue and difficult. This focus is overdue because we have too little comprehension of how and why religion and social class overlap, compete, or support one another. In the early twentieth century, sociologist Max Weber's analysis reminded us Americans to check the relationship between capitalism and religion: just how wedded are they? We are too much the inheritor of the imperialistic religious understandings of the Emperor Constantine, whose fourth century conversion to Christianity brought any state religion a whole new meaning. We are caught in old Marxist analyses of class and labor and worker.

Instead, as Stanley Aronowitz points out in How Class Works, the categories that previously defined classes no longer fit well, as new groupings rapidly develop. The agrarian society that was at odds with the development of industry at the turn of the twentieth century is very old news. The professional-managerial class and the creative class become new and not necessarily pleasant options. Aronowitz states: "Despite conventional wisdom, Americans have in fact entered a period of intense social conflict marked by struggles over class formation."1 His statement indicates one of the difficult parts of conversations around class.

The United States operates with a classless society myth. Everybody is welcome; everybody can be who they want to be; everybody can take advantage of endless opportunities. But these myths are not true; rather, we are caught up in living into or out of classes. How can we define the parameters of social classes today? How would we know the class of Mike Tyson or Loretta Lynn or Michael Moore or Oprah Winfrey? Money alone does not define social class. But is that still true? In America, has money and personal wealth trumped all other indicators of class? Or is Walmart merely a modern version of a fiefdom? The category of labor is extremely problematic. What do the breakup of the AFL-CIO and the failure of pension plans mean to an understanding of "labor" in the US? What impact have globalized markets, immigrant workers, and multinational corporations had on the meaning of "work?"

If these questions are difficult, the addition of religion raises the complication of whole new sets of questions. What types of religious analyses are needed? How are churches to respond? How do ministers educate and pastor to congregations about justice when class is an ever-present reality? What happens to ministry in wealthy congregations? Or should we only talk about class in the poor churches?

These questions only begin the conversations. Most of the contributors to this issue bring a particular focus on the confluence of social class and religion. Gloria Albrecht analyzes the class separations between Christians with a hard look at the realities reflected in demographics. Obery Hendricks, Jr. contrasts religion and political conservatism with Jesus and gospel values. Kirk D. Lyon, Sr. approaches one Pauline letter to analyze social class. Wyndy Corbin focuses more intently on evangelicalism and social class. Willie Baptist and Rev. Noelle Damico reflect on activism that addresses and crosses class boundaries. John Raines raises other difficult questions about the maintenance of social class as he analyzes his own role as a professor.

John Raines deserves a special word of thanks because he inspired and instigated this issue. He asked me a question that I could not evade: Why not an issue of CrossCurrents on social class? He brought Gloria Albrecht early into the conversation, and I doubt that this issue has shaped up as gloriously as they had hoped. But working toward completion of this issue and thinking about the multiple issues involved between religion and social class, I have a new question: how can we continue this conversation?

1. Stanley Aronowitz, How Class Works: Power and Social Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 23.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2005, Vol. 55,  No 3.