Blue-collar Chicago figures prominently in new look at religion, values

Values voters, social conservatives, the religious right.

They are labels tossed around constantly, especially around election time. But a new book by a UIC professor that examines religion in the lives of working class Chicagoans asserts those labels might not be accurate.

Bob Bruno, an associate professor of labor and employment at the University of Illinois in Chicago, says religion plays an important role in how many American’s vote, but in a different way than is often portrayed by political polls and the media.

Hot button issues like gay marriage or abortion may trigger religious voters to support a candidate. However, the voters' stance on these issues don't accurately reflect how they think about the world. 

“When you ask them how they think and behave, what ideas they hold, what you end up finding a form of religiosity based in forming relationships,” Bruno says. “These really define these folks more than the cultural wedge issues that we talk about.”

Bruno's book, Justified by Faith, is considered an innovative study of the meaning of religion for everday people. Bruno interviewed 116 working class people from churches, synagogues and mosques around Chicago, asking questions about how their beliefs play out in their everyday lives.

What Bruno found was that working class people don’t see their faith as a list of rigid rules spelling out right and wrong. 

“In terms of belief, what do working class people of faith believe? Very little, except that they have a relationship with God,” Bruno says. “They don’t believe there is a set theology they have to abide by.”

For example, Bruno asked his subjects if they saw times of financial stress  - times when they lost a job or couldn't make ends meet - as a punishment for not being right with God. Overwhelmingly, they said no. In fact, they felt their struggles brought them closer to God.

“Most of the working class folks really believe you couldn’t find God without going through some kind of struggle,” Bruno says.

In fact, those struggles also reinforced their faith in another way - by strengthening their personal relationships. Bruno described his conversation with a meat-cutter who is an Orthodox Jew who talked about the struggles he had experienced in his life.

"What he said was, 'What God really wants for us is to have relationships with each other - what we do when we struggle is turn to each other," he said.

A focus on relationships isn't the only way class impacts how people see religion. Bruno says our social class impacts how we see almost everything, and religion is no different.

“Class identity makes a difference in how we use materials, in how we identify ourselves. It’s a marker that’s too often ignored," he says.

The book explores many themes, including sin, salvation and work. Bruno says his book is the first to focus on how the working class thinks about these ideas. 

Bryan Froehle, professor of practical theology at St. Thomas University in Miami, says Bruno’s book is groundbreaking.

“What makes Bob’s work so special and so unique is that he listens to the great diversity of experiences within the working class,” Froehle says, “and doesn’t use those experiences to compare to something outside of it.”

Froehle says the approach allows us to understand religion more fully in the context of American, working-class life.

“Bob’s work radically revitalizes the frame that we have inherited from our current political discourse – that people fit in either box a or box b in our political life,” Froehle says, “when in fact it’s much more complex.”

Bruno says it's important to understand these complexities - that religious, working class Americans can't be lumped into the category of fundamentalists - especially because the working class is a huge part of the population. 

“Clearly, this is the largest number of folks attending, supporting and sustaining churches and a national level of spirituality,” he says.

The book, published by Ohio State Press, was released on Oct. 1.