Be-At-a-What? Religion and Social Class

David Breeden
4 min readMay 16, 2019
Photo by Ron Hansen on Unsplash

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On this blog, I occasionally reflect on the Pentecostal religion of my youth in an attempt to explain how religion works among the poor. I find that people who grew up in mainline traditions just don’t get how religion works in the working class.

Here’s one example:

Get Behind the Mule” is a song by the American musician Tom Waits. According to Waits, the title of the song is a reference to something that the blues genius Robert Johnson’s father once said after Robert’s untimely death:

Trouble with Robert is he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plow, because that was the life that was there for him. To be a sharecropper. But he ran off to Maxwell Street and all over Texas. He wasn’t going to stick around. Get behind the mule can be whatever you want it to mean. We all have to get up in the morning and go to work.

That’s the voice of a realist judging the dreams of an artist. It’s also the voice of the working class. I heard that voice when I was growing up as well: “Don’t get above your raisin’” was a phrase I heard a lot.

My father up in the morning to plow

Those voices have a lot to do with religion among the poorest Americans.

In his book The Making of Working-Class Religion, the historian Matthew Pehl relates a telling incident. In the early-1960s, several Detroit-area liberal mainline-Protestant ministers decided to get to know the working class by working side by side with them in Detroit’s factories. One discovery shocked them: they had assumed that factory labor, especially on assembly lines, would be difficult but rewarding for the workers. After all, from their middle-class Protestant work ethic, work was a positive thing.

The workers in the factories, however, were not liberal Protestants. They were evangelicals and Pentecostals, blacks and whites who for the most part had immigrated from the American south. Those workers saw work as a curse. After all, here is God cursing Adam in the book of Genesis:

cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all…

David Breeden

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page