In this episode of Money on the Left, we speak with historian Alison Collis Greene about her book No Depression in Heaven with an eye toward contemporary debates around the Green New Deal. Subtitled The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, Greene’s book critiques what she calls the “myth of the redemptive depression” which, particularly in the American south, eroded the legacy of the original New Deal by affirming regressive fantasies of self-help and individualism.
Many on the left today see the “New Deal” framing of contemporary social and ecological politics as a concession to liberal nostalgia. However, No Depression in Heaven reminds us that right-wing and religious dismissals of the New Deal played a key part in rolling back government provisioning under neoliberalism. From our perspective, then, the original New Deal remains a crucial rhetorical battleground for the future of American political economy.
Greene teaches United States religious history at Emory University, and researches American religions as they relate to politics, wealth and poverty, race and ethnicity, the environment, and the modern rural South. Check out her poetic mediation on scarcity, gender and history, “Pine Knot Woman,” which Greene reads for us at the beginning of the show.
The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity
William Saas: Alison Collis Greene, welcome to the Money on the Left.
Alison Collis Greene: Glad to be here.
William Saas: Can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about your personal and scholarly background? How did you become a scholar of religious studies in particular?
Alison Collis Greene: Sure. The religious studies part came first. For a long time I was—well, that’s pretty self centered—my dad was a Southern Baptist minister. This goes way back. He left seminary to return to his home church when I was small. This was in a rural part of the North Carolina mountains where he and my mom had grown up. I was four and the church that we went to, like I said, was the church he’d grown up in. It’s kind of the center of our universe. I spent a lot of my childhood climbing the trees in the church yard, playing hide and seek in the pews, and wandering up the road to my grandparents’ house. I knew everyone there. I learned later that we were kicked out of our first rental house when the landlord saw that my dad had Greek and Hebrew texts on the shelves. You were just supposed to trust King James, not mess with all that other stuff.
After another transition, which was when I was 12, I learned about this big split in the Southern Baptist Convention that had been ongoing. It rocked our world. We had to leave that church. “Too much learning and too little preaching, too much love and too little hell” was what people said. So my dad found odd jobs after he left the church. He drove a fuel truck for most of my childhood and figured out what he was doing to do. I knew from that moment that I was going to study religion. Christianity was this thing that had held us all together in this community, but it was also the thing that had torn us apart. So I wanted to understand it. And in a sort of childish way, I also wanted to know what was so dangerous in those foreign texts that got us kicked out of the house. When I went to college, I knew I was going to study religion and learn Hebrew Bible. I thought I wanted to learn Greek, but I fell in love with Hebrew. I took six semesters of biblical Hebrew, with some anthropology of religion and Scottish Calvinism courses on the side. That was my adolescent rebellion.
When I graduated, I joined Teach for America. I moved to the Arkansas Delta. Going in, with my background in Hebrew Bible and not knowing much about the world around me, I thought all rural places were the same. And so, my childhood in the Appalachians would be perfectly adequate preparation to teach in the rural deep South. You will be shocked to hear that it wasn’t. In my first week in the Delta, the local Churches of God in Christ led a boycott of the segregated public school system where I taught. The schools were segregated because the white kids went to an Academy. I faced new questions about race, class, and justice. For the two years I was there, I knew that what I really needed to know and learn was American history. If I wanted to answer any of the questions that I had, [history] was the route.
So I went to grad school to study religion and learn some history on the side. In our religion program, I took one semester of history classes and I was just hooked. The methodologies of history fit the way I think. I began to learn what was limited about the narratives of history that I had grown up with and started to piece together some of the answers to questions I had—and to ask better questions. So I switched programs and here I am. I’m a historian of religion now.
Scott Ferguson: Right. So I’d like to turn to your book, No Depression in Heaven. In that book, you focus on the Delta region nestled between Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi in order to develop a critique of what you call the “myth of the redemptive depression.” Would you mind fleshing this out for our listeners? What is this myth? Where did it come from and what are its stakes for you, for history, and maybe even for contemporary American politics?
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, let me start with some of the stakes and I’m gonna move on from personal narrative after this. I learned a story about my own family only after I’d written the book. It’s not a story about what motivated me, but one that helped me see the stakes of the argument that I was making. My great grandfather in the 1920s had three children and three school aged sisters left in his care. In the 20s, when things were supposed to be great, he had to send two of his sisters to an orphanage because he couldn’t afford to feed them. This orphanage was four hours away. He had a job in the feldspar mines and it wasn’t enough. My great grandfather thought he could bring his sisters home when things got better, but things did not get better. One day, when his wife, my great grandmother, was running an errand with one of her own children, the third child, who hadn’t been accepted by the orphanage because she was chronically ill, fell into the open fireplace in the kitchen and burned to death. I had written about abuses in orphanages and about things that happen to families who were crippled and crushed by the depression. But I didn’t know how much of that was part of my own story.
Those living sisters lived four hours away in that orphanage for the rest of their childhood, never again to live with members of their own family. I knew them distantly. They didn’t have much to do with the family for what are probably obvious reasons. So I knew about the sisters. I knew something about the orphanage story. But I knew nothing about the sister who had died until I finished my PhD in history, wrote this book about religion in the depression, and my grandfather died and the family started telling me stories. We had joked all through my childhood about all the moonshining preachers and married cousins in our family tree, but nobody told this story about poverty, suffering, hardship, loss, and humiliation. And so, I started to think about the way that the stories we have in our own histories, that are full of pain, sorrow, and shame, often die with the people who carry them instead of becoming part of our lived knowledge.
We learn cleaner, tidier versions of our histories. Those stories shape our ideas about the world and where we fit in it. If we don’t learn about the suffering in our own pasts, in our own worlds, then it can be really hard to see it in others. And even if we see it, we are likely to blame other people, or the suffering that befalls them.
So that’s a personal story about what I see as the stakes in this “myth of the redemptive depression.” I’m going to sum it up in a couple of ways. One of those ways is, when I finished the book, I had a friend on Facebook who posted a meme. It’s like a picture of a grandmother. She looks very Appalachian and she’s sitting in front of a farm. She’s all by herself, which is really important. And over it, it says “Grandma survived the Great Depression because her supply chain was local and she knew how to do stuff.” Now, this is a claim that you can make that seems so persuasive because it’s a version of history that all of us have heard, but it’s also a completely fabricated and inaccurate version of history. The local supply chain was a central problem in the Depression. Knowing how to do stuff doesn’t mean a hill of beans when there is no money, there’s a drought, and you can’t even grow a hill of beans. And if you can, you’re probably gonna be feeding them to hungry neighbors. In this meme, suffering of poverty becomes an individual problem—neither a political problem nor social problem.
So you have one of the richest countries in the history of the world with one of the highest wealth gaps, highest rates of child poverty, homelessness, and incarceration, and yet we blame the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated, and the work the government does to mitigate unnecessary suffering. In this country, we have a long history of blaming poor people for their problems, but that wasn’t always the way we thought. The Great Depression brought such quick and deep suffering that it made visible the costs of capitalism and systemic causes of poverty. Americans united around this idea that a federal response and a federal safety net wasn’t just a pipe dream or a path towards doom. It was a moral imperative—the best and maybe only way forward in this crisis. If you want to tear away that safety net, which was not completed but began during the Depression, or if you want to tear down the federal government, none of the things I’ve just told you is a convenient story.
So you have to make up a new story. And I would say that story goes like this. This is the standard narrative of the Depression that a lot of us inherit. The greatest generation suffered through the ravages of the Depression, but they came out of it stronger. Maybe Franklin Roosevelt helped them back on their feet with work programs or social security. But then, they pulled together and helped one another and themselves. If you think of it in religious terms, you could say the Great Depression redeemed them. They suffered just enough to turn to God to realize they could help themselves and their communities. Then, they fought another world war, they won, and they built cozy houses. They went to college, they raised families, and they went to church or synagogue every weekend. The greatest generation in this framing is independent, hardworking, and grateful.
Then, the social programs of the New Deal destroy their descendants. The rest of us are just a big disappointment. We’re coddled by the government. We’re lazier and greedier with each passing generation. Does that sound like a familiar narrative? That’s the narrative I call the “myth of the redemptive depression.” That’s the story that I’m talking about. It recasts the greatest economic crisis of the 20th century into this sort of morality tale. It’s like this purifying experience that brings people together and to God. Or it would have done that if Franklin Roosevelt and his big government hadn’t gotten in the way. And big government is a problematic term there, but I’ll come back to that. The thing about that story, though, is it’s a really handy story to erase the suffering and sorrow of the depression—all of the things that brought about the New Deal in the first place. It’s a story that erases the decades of bipartisan effort that protected Americans from another Great Depression for a long time. It’s a story that ignores the way the greatest generation actually rallied together to build a welfare state, which is what enabled them to prosper, but it didn’t enable them all to prosper equally.
And so, it’s also a story that emphasizes the experiences of the white middle class, but ignores the network of federal programs that enabled the white middle class to become what it was, such as home and farm loans, social security, and the GI bill. These programs were at the expense of people of color, especially black Americans, who have historically received far fewer federal benefits than white folks. I think one of the most toxic elements of this “myth of the redemptive depression,” is the argument, which began in the welfare reform debates of the 90s, but now we’ve just sort of accepted, that the New Deal destroyed the work of churches and voluntary associations. Even if you think the New Deal was okay, it destroyed this work. And in so doing, it undermined Americans’ inherent compassion in favor of an impersonal and permanent welfare state that rendered the poor helpless and dependent. This is a framing advanced by people like Marvin Olasky and others in the 90s.
In 2012, Paul Ryan said, rather than being a basic entitlement of citizenship, which I would argue it is, the social safety net “dissolves the common good of society and dishonors the dignity of the human person.” So conservatives then frame this as a debate about who should do the helping. It’s not a debate about what we do, but who should do it? Why shouldn’t churches care for the poor and leave the state out of it? But that’s very disingenuous. No one really believes churches would do what the federal government does or did. And that’s actually the point. Even now, a lot of private charitable work relies on public dollars. Without our taxes, it would be gone. That’s where we might disagree, but that’s at least how it’s funded now.
Back in 2018, when the first disastrous Trump budget came under discussion, this anti-hunger organization called Bread for the World estimated that if you were gonna make up for individual church spending, what was taken out of the budget, it would cost $714,000 to maintain the existing social programming that budget would cut. So the moral case against the welfare state rests on basically two assumptions. One, that poverty and suffering are the result of individual failures and not flaws in political economic systems. And two, that there’s no need for a welfare state to assure a baseline standard of living for everybody. That, in fact, that’s bad somehow. The moral problem, then, is the poor and not the persistence of poverty. At the end, that is the message of the “myth of the redemptive depression.”
Maxximilian Seijo: To dig into the specifics of the counter narrative that you traced to that myth in your book, I’d like to perhaps talk about the history of aid in the Delta from the 19th century up until the Great Depression. What did aid look like in the Delta region leading up to the Depression, how is it structured, and what were its problems?
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, the first thing you have to do to peel back this myth is look at things on the ground at this moment. To do that, you could start anywhere. I’m going to start with the sort of mythic golden age up to and through the 20s, when there was no federal safety net to speak of and when Americans were supposedly doing really great. Now, if you want to see that golden age of voluntary aid in its purest form, then you have to look at places where public aid didn’t exist. There were parts of the country where municipal and state level aid was fairly expansive. Memphis, Tennessee and the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta were a place that had very little of either. Memphis and the Delta, for a little context, were to some degree a single coherent economic region. Memphis was the economic and cultural capital of the Delta. It sits north of the Delta. It was where the cotton market was. It was the mule market for the Delta.
Then, the Delta is the rich plains and soil area that extends for miles down both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides of the Mississippi river. The population of that region in the 1930s was more diverse than you’d probably imagine. There were wealthy planters and industrialists. There were poor factory workers and farmers. There were Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. There were African Americans, a pretty wide range of immigrants, and white folks. This makes it a pretty interesting case study of how aid operated across institutional lines, geographic lines, and racial and ethnic lines. Also, [how aid operated] from the rural outpost to the city center, because it’s going to look very different in the city from the countryside.
Before I go on to describe that aid—I do this with my students and when I talk about the book—I want to ask you to do something. Imagine this: let’s say it’s 1930. You have a little farm in the country or you have a little shop in the town or the city. You have a family constituted however you want to imagine it. You’ve always scraped by, but since the stock market crashed, prices have bottomed out. Nobody’s buying anything. You lost your savings in a bank crash. Your farm or business has gone under. The bank has repossessed your property. Your family’s hungry. Your partner has died of tuberculosis. You’re sick. Your kids have no food, you have no money, and there’s no work to be found.
I want you to actually answer this and I want listeners to think about this. Where do you go for help?
Scott Ferguson: Okay, let’s say I go to my church.
Alison Collis Greene: Okay, great. One of the first places you think to go to is your church. Depending on who you are, your church might be middle-class. Maybe you were once part of the middle class because churches are divided by class. You might be able to get a little help from your church. They might feed your family for a week. Now, say you went to a poor church. They’ve already helped everybody. Either way, your church has done what they can. Where do you go next?
William Saas: Neighbors?
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, you go to your neighbors, but man, there’s a drought. There’s a crisis. Everybody’s hungry. You share what you have the best that you can. But I mean the drought doesn’t stop at your doorstep. So where do you go now?
William Saas: Well, I started thinking about stealing things.
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, I mean one option is to just take, but you’ve got to travel pretty far to find people who even have much to take. Can you think of anywhere else you would go? You’re really desperate. Gone everywhere you can think.
Maxximilian Seijo: I might move. Relocate.
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, right, this is a significant response to this crisis. Pick up whatever you have left and go. You look for a place where things are better. Maybe you find it, maybe you don’t. Everybody else is doing the same thing.
William Saas: And we can’t go back to the church at this point? They haven’t replenished their goods yet?
Alison Collis Greene: Right. You might try a different church. That is an option. Not all churches are equally resourced. So I’ll just go through the options. There are a few more options than you’ve already mentioned, but not a ton. Let’s say you look first at public options. Now, I asked you to think about if you lived in the Delta. If you lived in the Northeast, or in the Midwest, you’d have a few more options because there were municipal and state forms of aid. In either case, those resources were still pretty patchwork. Now, if you happen to be a veteran, you might have access to a state pension. This would only be the case in the South if you are a Confederate veteran, which was the South’s first form of welfare, and clearly a form of welfare for whites only.
If you were an abandoned or widowed mother—[this] wouldn’t apply to any of you—you might receive a few dollars of Mother’s Aid, which was a program that social workers advocated for around the turn of the century in the progressive era so that widowed or abandoned mothers could care for their children at home instead of turning them over to orphanages. Orphanages in this period weren’t just filled with kids without parents, but with kids whose parents simply couldn’t take care of them. The idea was that Mother’s Aid would keep kids out of orphanages for mothers who could prove that they had been widowed or abandoned and hadn’t just been irresponsible and gone and had a kid—cause those [mothers] did not deserve any help obviously. But if you’ve done everything right, and you probably had to be white in most places, then you could get a little bit of help. In the Northeast, it actually might be enough to help you take care of your kid. In the South, Mother’s Aid was mostly for whites. It was available only in a few cities and it was just a couple of dollars per month in most cases.
Now, if you were sick, and you were sick in this scenario, there were charity hospitals at both the state level and private charity hospitals. If, and this was a big if, you could get a bed, and there were hospital beds in Memphis for both black and white patients, but they were not equivalent and they were not adequate in either case. Now, if you were really destitute, you could also go to the poor house, where if you were deemed able and deserving—if you weren’t able or deserving, you’re out of luck—you could work the poorhouse farm in exchange for very basic accommodations and all of your worldly possessions. That’s sort of it from public aid in much of the United States before the New Deal. On the city level, some cities beyond Memphis offered more. By 1930, 76 percent of total aid in the nation’s largest 116 cities was public. That averaged a dollar and nine cents per person per year. In Memphis, that total aid averaged 55 cents per person per year, and those proportions are precisely reversed. 76 percent of total assistance in Memphis was private. In the Delta, it was all private. That was the only option.
I want to tell you a little bit about what that private aid would’ve looked like. That’s the aid that y’all thought of first—your family, your community, and your church. There was a little bit of institutional aid because between the civil war and the Great Depression, women societies and home missions organizations built schools, hospitals, orphanages, and settlement houses to reach needy white people in the city. They always prioritize their own members first. Catholic and Jewish charities were a lot more expansive. They served members of their own communities first, but they also helped a lot of others. By the 20s, a lot of those aid organizations, both in Memphis and around the country, united and consolidated community funds that produced all sorts of brochures explaining, as one in Memphis was titled, “Where to Send People for Help.” It had a long list of all the agencies that might help people who are aged, orphaned, or hungry. So you could look at these brochures and you could think, “Wow, anybody who needs help has somewhere to go.” They gave the impression that all you had to do is just ask. But if you look more deeply, you see that those agencies only focused on institutional aid.
So you could find a place. There was a real problem with poverty among older folks, but you could find a safe place to send an indigent older person if you didn’t really care about the conditions there. You could find an orphanage. Each of these agencies made it clear that nobody was entitled to adequate nutrition, a home, or to health. In fact, if you had too much of any of those things, it might spoil your will to work. And so, in 1927, the Methodist head of Goodwill Industries, which is like the Goodwill we have today, it was a sort of make work and charity organization, said “The first taste of charity is as dangerous as the first shot of dope.” And there’s a big dope scare at the same time too. This was the way that even the people who are providing charitable aid are thinking about it. It is a last resort and people have to show they deserve it because you really don’t want to mess with the workforce and their willingness to work at low wages.
For people in the South and mid-Memphis, this argument, of course, doesn’t apply equally to everyone. It applies most strenuously to African-Americans who represented 40 percent of the population in Memphis but received even less than they paid into the municipal and charitable coffers. Only 3 percent of the community fund budget in Memphis went to the blanket category of Negro aid. Black churches, women’s societies, and fraternal orders were the only source of support for most Black families in need. If your family was chronically poor or hungry, starving even, maybe losing their home, they really didn’t have anywhere to turn. In Memphis, only the Salvation Army offered a comprehensive soup kitchen. In the countryside, people relied entirely on informal aid—on their local churches, their families, and their communities. And there’s this sense that nobody really starved in the depression, but there are all sorts of state level nutrition studies that show that in fact people were very hungry and were suffering a really wide range of diseases—malnutrition, pellagra, rickets, and all sorts of horrific diseases of hunger. And that is while things are good. That’s before the disaster.
The stock market crash didn’t immediately affect Memphis in the Delta. But then, you have this record setting drought in the spring and summer of 1930. And so, the cotton, which is a drought resistant crop, is parched in the fields. Food crops shrivel up long before the cotton. Farmers now faced a long winter with no food to store and no income for basic staples. Even those who had managed to get a little bit of money saw their savings disappear in a wave of bank failures for the Delta region. It was a bank in Nashville that collapsed. Most of the banks in the region failed. So even if you’d done everything right, you still lost all your money. You still had nothing. That is the start in Memphis and the Delta of what would become known as the Great Depression.
William Saas: So how much of this is tied in explicitly with theological doctrine? How was it interpreted as personal and individual responsibility? And how much of it can we explain by broader political concerns about the spread of like Bolshevism, socialism, communism, and anarchism throughout the 20s?
Alison Collis Greene: That’s a really good question. I’m a historian, not a theologian, so I don’t have a formal doctrine of personal responsibility. I would say there is an American doctrine of personal responsibility. The fear of Bolshevism is part of this, but these attitudes long predate those fears. These attitudes are deeply embedded in American thinking in the 19th century. In part, they come out of American’s difficulty in managing the transition from a kind of community based society to a larger one. The big themes of industrialization and urbanization and trying to figure out how you live together in a world where you don’t know most of the people around you.
There’s also a theological component to this idea. It’s part of the messages folks would hear in churches on Sunday. And there’s a tension between the social gospel ideas that emerged in the late 19th century. If you take Heath Carter’s argument, it very much comes out of the ranks of labor, only later coming to the middle class. And if you take Janine Giordano Drake’s argument, it’s very much reduced to an ambition by the middle-class. You get this sense that people in the churches have some sort of social responsibility to each other, but that social responsibility, which has to look different in the city from how it looked before, entails a responsibility to manage the behavior of people who are not prospering. If you do things right in this American narrative, you should prosper. The 19th century Gospel of Wealth literally says that poor people deserve what happens to them and that everyone should be rich and could be rich if they just did things right. So yeah, it has a long history. It has deep precedent. What’s really striking about the depression is not that this legacy persisted, but that it actually faded for a little while. There was another way of thinking that gained traction, not just among Christian socialists, who were increasingly numerous in that period, or socialists more generally, but among a wide swath of Americans.
William Saas: Could you talk a little bit about that new way of thinking and how it evolved? You’ve done a nice job of giving us overview of the infrastructure and rhetorical scaffolding for the shoddy aid in the Delta region. What happened after the Great Depression and how did that infrastructure and justification evolve?
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, sure. The Depression is a process. It’s a long period. In the initial response to the Depression, when the banks crash in 1929, nobody thinks this is going to be anything more than a little hiccup. So the initial response isn’t very promising. People at the start of the Depression did not know what they were looking ahead at was the Great Depression. They actually thought things were supposed to get better. And for the first couple of years, most people thought things would just turn around pretty quickly. With previous recessions, there was this boom and bust cycle. It was just part of American capitalism. And we had tried to manage it in the progressive era so that you could control the cycle. But this was really just a thing that was going to get better with time. A lot of religious leaders said that it was a good thing because it would purify the country. As a response to all the roaring twenties stuff, Girls would stop cutting their hair short and smoking cigarettes. We would get right with God and then we’d get better. But that didn’t happen. You had all this preaching about a spiritual depression and how we just needed a spiritual recovery for an economic recovery. But things kept getting worse.
The response among a lot of people wasn’t a moralizing call for evangelism, but a stunned agony and silence, a bewilderment about what was happening. There were also people who had the luxury of sticking their heads in the sand. There’s a Methodist Bishop in Memphis who wrote on Christmas day of 1930, an editorial in The Commercial Appeal called, “Nobody is Starving in America.” Essentially, the message of the editorial was: we don’t need soup kitchens, we need a moral awakening. Well, nine days after he wrote this editorial, black and white farmers outside the town of England, Arkansas banded together and marched into the center of town demanding food for their families. These farmers are starving. People all around the country are just stunned by this as it reaches the news. They were stunned by when a relief worker said, “People could hunger with the bountiful soil immediately underfoot.” They had assumed that farmers, as another relief worker said, “had only to decapitate another hen or pull up some produce from the garden.” But the hens were gone. The gardens were cold and bear. It’s winter.
By February, more than half a million people in Arkansas, a quarter of the state’s population, needed help getting food. The one other place you can get help is from the Red Cross if a disaster is declared. And so, that’s what happens. The Red Cross begins to provide a limited amount of food aid. What people were marching for was actually Red Cross food aid which had been denied. So these events changed the way people talked about suffering, charity, and individual responsibility. When you have bread lines and farmers marching for food, it’s really hard to make the same claims about deservingness and about the meaning of poverty that you might’ve made a couple years before. Private aid organizations had been really proud of all their success and caring for everyone who really needed help. Again, it was a very limited number, but they faced three crises all at once. First, the number of people who wanted help goes through the roof. Second, the donations to charities and churches plummet and their savings vanish in the same bank failures that crushed farmers in the middle class. Thus, more people need help and there’s less available. Finally, the defense that, people for whom this is happening deserve what they get, completely falls apart in the face of widespread economic and environmental crisis. Churches and charities tried to help. They didn’t just moralize—although they rarely gave up an opportunity to do that.
In December of 1929, the Salvation Army in Memphis had served 1,700 meals. The next winter it served in each month between five and 10 times as many meals before. Eventually, it drained the swimming pool to make room for homeless men and boys to sleep on pallets on the pool floor. So the Salvation Army is doing all this work and actually expanding its work, but most agencies are collapsing because they don’t have the kind of support that they need. And if voluntary agencies are doing poorly, churches are doing almost as badly or worse. They’re struggling just to stay open. And a lot closed. Between 1929 and 1932, this applies to both churches and voluntary agencies, national income dropped by more than 50 percent. So for another couple of years, church giving holds steady relative to national income, but that still means a 50 percent loss at the very moment that demands on the resources of voluntary agencies and churches are increasing. The churches immediately went into self preservation mode. They cut “benevolent spending,” as they called it first. The president of the Southern Baptist convention, which had had a series of crises in the 20s said in 1931, “We are putting off the Lords cause while we try to settle with our other creditors.” They were pretty direct about what was happening. When the money ran out, the churches turned their spending inward instead of outward. So denominations are scrambling to keep the programs they value, but they’re cutting corners.
We talked about orphanages before and so I’ll use orphanages again as an example. Like I said, orphanages housed non-orphans. In the depression, they’re housing a growing number of non-orphans—kids whose parents just couldn’t take care of them and feed them enough. Even before the depression, these orphanages were often really inadequate and dangerous places. There is a growing recognition that institutional care was not the appropriate setting for children. The institutions persisted nonetheless. In Memphis, there was an orphanage called the Industrial Settlement Home. It was a church supported African-American orphanage in the city of Memphis. In August of 1929, this orphanage burned to the ground. The matron ushered the responding fire men that everyone was out of the orphanage. She was wrong. Eight young boys from ages two to six died huddled together in a second floor bathroom of the orphanage. The report that followed showed that the boys hadn’t died of the fire or smoke inhalation, but essentially died in a room that became an oven in the heat of the fire. It also revealed that the home had been declared a fire hazard long before it was overcrowded. Children regularly slept in the closets and in bathrooms. The matron regularly beat children with shoes and hot fireplace pokers. The fire had, in fact, been set by a girl whom she had just beaten. This might seem particularly dramatic, but it wasn’t the only episode of abuse like this.
Similar episodes rocked the white Mississippi Baptist orphanage in Jackson in 1929 and 1930. This is right at the start of the depression. A grand jury actually indicted the superintendent for administering excessive corporal punishment. And let me tell you, to get indicted for administering excessive corporal punishment in Mississippi in 1930, it has to be pretty excessive. In one case, the superintendent beat a 14 year old girl with a board, stopping only when the board broke and discovered that this girl wasn’t an orphan. Her aunt visited and discovered that she was just a mass of bruises from her shoulders to her knees. So she shared this with the churches and with the orphanage. She makes a stink about it. And immediately, the denomination blamed the children. They were too unruly. They had brought this on themselves. Then, only later with the outcry of parents and others in the church, did it remove this administrator.
So the Depression leaves people so hungry now that parents have to choose between letting their children starve and leaving them in orphanages that are rife, in many cases, with abuse and violence. Not all were. But how could you know? Then, between 1929 and 1931, private aid collapsed completely. Overstuffed orphanages now turned kids away to starve. Religious leaders saw what they could ignore in the 1920s. Paul Ryan said that “poverty exacts a terrible price on families and communities.” There’s no dignity of the human person, as Ryan put it, when that person lies dying alone of hunger or the diseases of malnutrition and exposure. Or when that person can’t keep her children warm or safe. Or when that person has to abandon his own siblings so they don’t starve. So the churches had to reckon with this. [Religious leaders] had to look at this and figure out what to do with it.
Religious leaders could only turn their heads away for so long. Some had been looking for a moment when they could speak up. As they looked at the suffering before them, and their own inability to do anything about it, religious leaders across the nation actually stopped using the language of individual responsibility almost entirely. They also stopped using the language of charity to a large degree. Even Southern Baptists started to write about the failures of capitalism and Americans’ basic responsibilities to each other in Mississippi state Baptist papers. There’s this renewed sense of the public, of public responsibility, and of our common fate. They called for the federal government to step in to protect its citizens. Americans, inside the churches and outside the churches, started to conclude that a welfare state, as we would come to know it, would not destroy human dignity. It would recognize and preserve human dignity. Now, the actual response came much more slowly, but this was a pretty significant shift in language and understanding.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, we’d like to know about the response, especially how federal action is being framed and interpreted locally through the lens of religious community.
Alison Collis Greene: That we can do. Like I said, federal response came slowly. The demands increase. Herbert Hoover is really committed to voluntary aid and he’s genuine about it. He thinks this is the way to address these problems. For him, if the power of the government bends itself to these problems, it’ll create a bigger disaster than the one he’s already in the middle of. I also don’t think he ever quite got his head around the scale of this disaster. He had worked for the Red Cross. He was deeply committed to this idea of voluntary aid. But in January of 1930, Hoover’s administration made a move to provide emergency loans to banks and corporations, and then later to States and municipalities for public works projects. But a lot of states and municipalities didn’t take these because they’re loans. They couldn’t pay them back.
It was all too little, too late. So Roosevelt trounced Hoover in the 1932 election on the promise that he would leverage the federal government to end the depression. The model would be some of the programs that he had first tested out as the governor of New York. And when I say he trounced Hoover, it’s almost unimaginable in 21st century terms. Now, you have to take into account the limited electorate and voter restrictions in the South. But Roosevelt won 57 percent of the popular vote and 88.9 percent of the electoral vote. He won handily. The barrage of legislation that he signed in 1933, what would become known as the “first hundred days,” included an agency that would be especially important to the church’s conceptualization of what they did. That’s the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA, which was the first program to put federal funds, not just towards employment relief, but also towards direct aid to people who are suffering with the caveat that this aid would be administered in whatever way administrators at the city and state level decided was appropriate. In practice that most often meant food aid and jobs aid. Now, FERA significantly prohibited explicit racial discrimination. Not surprisingly, local administrators figured out proxies for racial exclusion. So even though racial equity to some degree was written into it, it was also written out of it in practice.
Federal aid outpaced that of private agencies by a magnitude that is hard to even comprehend because it could leverage so many more resources. [This happened] throughout the nation, especially in places like Memphis and the Delta, which hadn’t offered much in aid to the poor. New Deal spending made everything else look like pocket change. At the peak of private giving in 1931, Memphians received 88 cents per person in aid. 75 percent of it was private. Three years later by 1934, with the New Deal in full swing, Memphians received 7 dollars and 21 cents per capita in aid for direct and work relief. Only 12 percent of that was private. That’s a really dramatic change in who is spending money, how it’s being used, and how much of it there is. In just five years, as federal dollars provided work and food that Memphians needed, private aid dropped from three quarters of relief spending in the city to less than 2 percent.
In the Delta, almost all aid was public. So you could look at this and say, “Well, I mean you can see here that the state swept in to take over the churches work. They did this and the churches were just crowded out.” But by 1933, the limited aid that churches had offered before the Depression was already long gone. This wasn’t the state replacing what churches were doing. This was the churches collapsing and the state then stepping in at the request, and demand in many cases, of the leaders of those churches and agencies. Even more significantly, New Deal programs shifted the emphasis from individual suffering to collective responsibility. It’s no longer about your particular suffering, it’s about our shared responsibility to each other. This is a shift from private charity to public welfare. The Depression justified [shared responsibility] and the New Deal reinforced it.
And so, what did religious leaders have to say about it? I’ll talk first about what they said in the region and then a little bit about what people said nationally. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that liberal Protestants applauded FERA, as well as the National Recovery Administration, which for the first time, acknowledged workers rights to organize labor unions. Liberal Protestants saw both programs as a realization of the social creed of the churches, a statement that the Federal Council of Churches published in 1908. Catholics linked New Deal programs to papal decrees regarding social justice and worker rights. Jews pointed to the connections between the New Deal and the teaching of ancient Israel prophets. So there was a pretty unanimous and vocal range of support for the New Deal across the country. Perhaps more surprisingly, conservative Protestants were just as enthusiastic. A lot of them said Roosevelt drew his inspiration straight from the Bible.
There was a Southern Methodist, who wrote “The blue eagle is now perched on my door.” This was the symbol of the National Recovery Administration. “I’ve signed up for the war against the Depression,” he said. The National Bible Press actually tracked the biblical allusions in Roosevelt sermons and published them. If you saw complaints about the New Deal from the clergy in the years after the first New Deal, most of those complaints were that the New Deal didn’t do enough. Christian socialists were particularly unhappy with it. So FERA and the other 1933 programs curbed the crisis, but they didn’t establish a permanent welfare state. That would come later. In fact, those came, in part, as a response to those demands when Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, establishing what we now know as social security. There were also provisions for the orphaned and the disabled.
Then, the Works Progress Administration eventually created public works jobs for eight and a half million Americans. Upon the passage of those two programs—this is a remarkable resource—Roosevelt actually wrote a letter to clergy. It was supposed to go to every clergy person in the country, asking them to describe the conditions in their area and then also to say what they thought about the Social Security Act and the WPA in particular. And finally, the second New Deal in general. By the end, over 30,000 clergy responded. And the letters, I’ve read them, they’re astonishingly enthusiastic. Now, the New Deal liked to catalog everything, so with the first 12,000 replies that came in within the first couple of months, administrators actually tallied them by how positive they were towards the New Deal. 84 percent were either entirely or largely in approval of the New Deal and its programs. Clergy wrote over and over that the welfare state was, in their understanding, a religious achievement, not an encroachment on their work. It freed them to focus on supplementary care and to return to focus on evangelism. You really see this across the theological spectrum.
Of course, there were those who disagreed. There were Premillennialists who saw Roosevelt as one of many possible Antichrists. There were elite white southerners, although not exclusively elites, who worried that the New Deal would undermine Jim Crow capitalism, which was pretty remarkable because they had gained an iron grip on it to ensure that it wouldn’t do that. Then, there were Christian and Jewish socialists who wanted a president who would unmake American capitalism, not revive it. In the end, that’s what Roosevelt was trying to do. Their frustration was that the New Deal was shoring up the system that needed to fall. There was a range of concerns. It was pretty quiet to start. There was a slow simmer of concern that the federal government, in taking over the responsibility for caring for people, was in some way weakening church moral authority, or weakening the church’s hold on Americans’ secular institutions. But that was kind of it. The dissent in those early years wasn’t really happening in the churches. It was happening in the ranks of business.
Maxximilian Seijo: Thanks for that. Reading your book from the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory, especially in the spirit that we approach it on this podcast, I couldn’t help but notice a few meaningful threads sticking out that we’d like you to thematize and consider. One that struck us was how conservative fantasies of independence often affirm and even avowedly embrace this false sense of scarcity, which you thematize in the poem that you read for us. These fantasies often shore up Jim Crow racism and even in the sense that you were mentioning with this theory of crowding out between church and state. I think that is central to the way Modern Monetary Theory thematizes this false sense of scarcity. I was wondering if you could perhaps ponder those questions and those linkages for us? And perhaps ponder the ways in which these ongoing tensions between church and state inform the way we can think about our relationship to one another in America today.
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, I really like this question. I haven’t thought about it in precisely that language before, but I think that works if you think about the grandma meme that I talked about earlier—that she knew how to do stuff and her supply chain was local. That’s a grandma who doesn’t need anybody. It’s an image where she’s on this big farm all by herself. Yet, one of the key realizations of the Great Depression was that people need one another. That we need one another not only as members of our particular communities, but as members of a broader public. When we rally together, when we look at ourselves as members of a broader public, then we ensure our collective health and wellbeing. We can build good, diverse, and inclusive communities and schools and ensure jobs with a living wage for those who want them.
I do have reservations about the emphasis on work because it has echoes of those ideas about deservingness. But still, you can accomplish these things. Americans did this. That’s how they thought. That’s what they did in the midst of this devastating economic crisis. And it’s something we could do again if we wanted to, if we had the shared initiative and sense of collective abundance that marked the response to the Depression. Unfortunately, we have this zero-sum language of scarcity. And I agree with you that it’s false. We are a mind bogglingly wealthy country. Our kids don’t have to starve. If we believe in the sense of the collective, then these are all our kids. Kids don’t have to be ripped from their parents. They don’t have to be thrown in cages to starve. They don’t have to be shot down in the street.
The language of abundance doesn’t create competition in the way the language of scarcity does. If there’s enough for everyone, then the very wealthy, the people who hold the levers of power, will have a much harder time pitting the poor against each other. And if you can’t pit the poor against each other, then the poor might band together. This fear that the poor will band together, it goes all the way back to reconstruction. It goes back further, but consider reconstruction. White elites saw these fragile and really fraught alliances, but alliances nonetheless, between poor black and white southerners, especially among farmers. They saw interracial labor unions, the Knights of Labor, and the Populists—all of them imperfect in lots of ways—as terrifying to the white elite power structure.
So you get men, like Ben Tillman, who rose to the South Carolina governorship on the promise of doing lots of great things for poor white people by claiming black men were a threat and violent rapists. This was an intentional effort to fracture alliances across lines of race within lines of class. And it worked, people fell for it. White people fell for it. Poor whites chose race over class and it has happened over and over again. As long as that works, as long as your gain is my loss, then we’ll be exactly where we are. As long as we think in those terms, we preserve white supremacy, we preserve elite economic power, and we preserve the systems that separate us from each other. If we think in terms of abundance, if we think in terms of what we can all do together and who we all are together, then we’re starting from a very different frame. Then, those powers, the powers of white supremacy and elite economics, which are deeply bound together, they start to lose power. And the church and state is part of this same milieu. The idea that church and state are zero-sum is part of the same set of ideas. I think the implications are enormous for thinking in terms of abundance as opposed to scarcity.
Scott Ferguson: For a lot of people on the left, they’re excited about the Green New Deal, reviving the name and legacy of the New Deal project—especially since it’s really taking off. On the other hand, I think there are people who are not just left of center but really “left-left” that are wary of this framing for a number of reasons, many of which we’ve already outlined here. And so, it feels a little bit like a concessionary move to tap into a certain kind of white liberal nostalgia. But talking to you, and reading your work, it becomes so clear to me that the legacy and memory of the New Deal is actually key semiotic terrain for American political identity, both past and future. I think your project is so important for us to think about what this Green New Deal framing is doing. And not just more broadly in the larger American political landscape, but even more specifically in the South. Considering the South’s living memory of the New Deal, what does the Green New Deal potentially sound like in the South? What are your thoughts on that? What are the limits? What are the problems that need to be overcome? Are there certain problems that are not going to be overcome any time soon?
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think for me the best way to answer this question is to sort of step back and look at the ways in which the New Deal reinforced and codified white supremacy, but also the ways that it enabled new kinds of responses to it. So the New Deal consensus thrived for decades. Republicans and Democrats both expanded the welfare state well on into the 1960s. In response to civil rights activists, who protested the unequal benefits that the welfare state provided to whites, you got Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, many of which didn’t exist in the New Deal, like Medicare and Medicaid.
Those are more recent innovations. Johnson’s administration, though imperfectly, responded with War on Poverty programs that were designed to expand provisions for health and child welfare this time across explicitly racial and ethnic lines. This was, to that point, the most equitable expansion of the welfare state. And so, when you’re talking about the New Deal, you also have to talk about the Great Society, which is a connected part of its legacy. It operated very differently. It operated very often through voluntary and private agencies as opposed to public agencies. It also operated in an era when you had a couple decades of backlash. You can’t separate that backlash from this idea of scarcity—the idea that as long as white people lose any sort of hold on economic power, then everything’s gonna fall apart and white people are no longer going to have anything.
Frankly, they’re thinking in terms of non-white people doing what white people had been doing. So the War on Poverty, with this rhetoric of scarcity, became what is often aptly called the “war on the poor”. There is, again, this idea to blame the poor for their own suffering. Then, there are all these efforts to shrink and privatize the welfare state and also simultaneously to expand its punitive powers so that there’s a lot more emphasis on policing and a lot less emphasis on aid. Elizabeth Hinton has written beautifully about this. The efforts of the state to close gaps between rich and poor, between black and white, between new immigrants and established citizens, between women and men—we now have this new period of vast income inequality that is unmatched, even by the 1920s.
And all of this work to dismantle the welfare state rests on this “myth of the redemptive depression.” It’s a myth that infuses contemporary faith in the voluntary and private sectors, and skepticism in the federal government. So this retelling does this sort of erasure that I talked about before. And because it’s a misrepresentation of our history, it also represents a misunderstanding of our present. I think that there are two pieces of things we should know and remember about the New Deal. Without setting aside all of the ways that it replicated existing Jim Crow and white supremacist structures, we should double down in focusing on those structures in order to not replicate them again, in order to do better.
There are a couple of lessons to take away from the New Deal. One of which is that there’s a long and storied history of religious support. So this isn’t just a story of the left. The story of the New Deal is a consensus across a wide range of Americans that we are in some way part of a collective, that we are responsible for each other, and that what you have doesn’t mean I don’t. And so, one lesson to take away is there are many ways that American religious and faith traditions have conceptualized their place in society. The one that we have right now is far different from the one that we had for most of the 20th century. And there’s no reason that it needs to persist.
And second, the real shortcoming of the New Deal was its work to bolster white supremacy. And so, the last lesson is that, in all this language about racial solidarity and class solidarity, white people cannot choose class solidarity over racial solidarity. It’s not a choice. If you want to see yourself as in solidarity with working people, then you can not only think of yourself as in solidarity with white working people. People of color, especially black Americans, have reason to be suspicious of the intentions of even well-meaning whites because, over and over, white supremacy has broken these interracial alliances. So the New Deal’s great flaw was its concession to embrace white supremacy. And so, I would say white activists, we have to step back. We have to listen to people of color. We have to carry through with our commitments and stop picking white people first.
William Saas: Well thank you so much, Alison Collis Greene for joining us on Money on the Left.
Alison Collis Greene: Yeah, it was great to be here. Thanks for hanging out for awhile.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Alex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).