No Depression in Heaven: Greater at Length

Elesha Coffman

I have a confession to make. I have been promoting Alison Greene's No Depression in Heaven for months, whenever conversation turned to Christians' distrust of "big government," or why the Social Gospel faded, or whether churches could make up the difference for proposed federal budget cuts. (Gee, I dunno--does your church have an extra $714,000 lying around at the end of every year?) I was confident that Greene's book spoke powerfully to these discussions--but I hadn't actually read a page of it.

Now, I had read Greene's essay in the edited collection Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America, so I knew both the crux of her argument and her skill as a writer. And I had heard lots of good things about her and her work the way one hears things in our field--at conferences, on blogs, on Facebook, etc. I say this for the benefit of any grad students suffering from imposter syndrome, or professors still suffering from imposter syndrome, especially while teaching four new preps at Podunk University, 100 miles from the nearest research library or in-field colleague. We're all magpies, picking up bits of what we need for teaching and writing and just trying to understand the world. I think it's better to be a somewhat knowledgeable participant in an important conversation than to sit it out for a lack of deep expertise.

Fortunately, Janine Giordano Drake invited me to comment on the book for this blog, making it easy to convince myself that I really should sit down and read it. The argument I had previously encountered was there: That church leaders in the Delta region, utterly unable to provide for the material needs of their communities during the Depression, eagerly sought federal assistance--until they began to feel that the government was usurping their moral authority, at which point they turned against the hand feeding them and denied that they had ever needed help anyway. This is such a potent and timely argument that, if it were all the book offered, it would be enough ... but you could get it from an essay-length piece instead. The whole book, I now know, has even more to commend it, including:

Astonishingly good writing. I exhort my students to write with clarity and charity, and Greene excels at both. Clarity: "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." Charity: "When starving white farmers marched into an Arkansas town to demand food for their dying children, when priests turned away hungry widows and orphans because they were no needier than anyone else, and when visitors claimed that moonshiners did as much as churches to feed the hungry, southern clergy of both races spoke with almost one voice to say that they had done all they could" (both quotes, p. 2). Page after page, it is that good.

Deft use of sources. The letters from clergy to FDR that anchored Greene's essay in Faithful Republic are treasures, but so are the WPA documents and images, the blues lyrics, and the newspaper accounts of Fighting Joe Jeffers, vaudevillian turned revivalist. And while intimate knowledge of the rhythms of agricultural life isn't exactly a source, Greene has that, too. Certain months were better for revivals or worse for changes in banking policy. This book takes it all into account.

Exploration of the Delta region. Memphis and the farmlands tied to it culturally and economically were a blank, green spot on my mental map of the U.S. prior to reading this book. The political dynamics in a city where the long-ruling boss paid poll taxes for white and black voters; the version of plantation society that grew here mostly after the Civil War; and the religious mix (I had no idea that COGIC is one of the largest denominations in America) are all really interesting.

New questions. Clergy pushback against the emerging welfare state was clearly a product of this historical moment, but Greene cites early on a historical reference to "the un-American system of the dole." So which is the more surprising development, the antipathy toward federal aid, or the aid itself? Also, when it came to perspective on welfare, most (poor) Southern parishioners were in favor, while many of their (comparatively well-off) pastors complained. On this issue in the 1930s, laypeople were more "progressive" than clergy, with clergy conceptions of their own moral authority very much bound up with maintenance of the Jim Crow order. But in her epilogue, Greene asserts that Southern clergy were (tepidly, to be sure) more welcoming of Brown v. Board and desegregation than were laypeople. Is this the switch that it appears to be, and, if so, what explains it?

In sum, this is a great book, and I should have read it earlier. I can at least hope that some of the people I commended it to got there way ahead of me.


Paul Harvey said…
Everything you said, Elesha, all of it. Great research, analysis, beautiful writing.