Illinois: An Autoworker Reconciles God and Mammon

By Christopher D. Cantwell | October 1, 2014

(AP Photo/Paul Beaty) The Chrysler Automotive Plant in Belvidere, Illinois

Growing up in an Illinois factory town that seemed to have as many corn silos as smokestacks, I often wondered why everything around me sounded so cosmopolitan and French. My grandfather, for example, worked more than half his life in a Chrysler Automotive Plant in Belvidere, a town named after a French term of Italian origins that described a decorative garden summerhouse. He’d tell me our town and other Illinois place names like DuPage, Bourbonnais, and DesPlaines conveyed just how prized the region was when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first mapped the territory in 1673 while expanding the French empire. As a youth, I wondered if the whole thing was a colossal miscalculation, because there was nothing decorative about Belvidere. The 3 million-square-foot factory where my grandfather worked dominated the town, its parking lot filling the landscape not with greenery but with rows and rows of hauntingly uniform cars awaiting shipment. Do belvederes, as the term is more commonly spelled, even have parking lots?

Though odd to me as a child, I have come to appreciate Illinois’s curiously French origins. They seem to embody something essential about the state. As my amateur historian grandfather taught me, Marquette and Joliet initially sought out the territory of the Illini Indians for ostensibly different purposes. Marquette, a Jesuit, hoped to find new communities of Native Americans to Christianize. Joliet, a merchant, wanted to map new routes for trade. But as the state’s history makes clear, their endeavors were actually quite complementary. Over the next century, missionaries followed Joliet’s maps into the territory Europeans now phonetically spelled Ee-lee-nwah, while trappers utilized the missions Jesuits founded as outposts on the fur trade.

The priest and the merchant. One wanted to build a church, the other wanted to make money. They ended up making Illinois.

To talk about the religious and political life of a Heartland state such as Illinois is to talk about how capitalism in America often mediates the relationship between the two. As one of the few states in the union—and the only one in the Midwest—to be both a top manufacturer and agricultural producer, Illinois is defined by its economic largesse. Residents invariably describe themselves and even their sports teams as “blue collar” or “hardworking,” as if some kind of unrelenting labor was required to live there. Yet Illinois’s industriousness has also long been accompanied by an ambitious religiosity. Indeed, it’s often been difficult to distinguish one from the other. Home at varying points to the nation’s largest factory, tallest skyscraper, and biggest bakery, Illinois still boasts America’s highest church steeple, tallest freestanding cross, and largest Catholic Mass in American history.

In its business and its religion, Illinoisans make no little plans. For more than two centuries residents like Marquette, Joliet, and my grandfather have flocked to the state with equal parts economic aspirations and religious concerns. The result of this interplay has made the Prairie State what it is today.


MY GRANDFATHER WAS NOT an Illinoisan by birth, but, then again, few are. Even favorite son Abraham Lincoln was born elsewhere, a product of Kentucky’s rolling hillsides. Yet the successive waves of immigrants and newcomers that have made and remade Illinois have all come to the state in search of a prosperity imbued with spiritual significance. Lincoln’s arrival in 1830, for example, was a part of the first wave of white settlers who migrated from as far as New England to farm the rich, black topsoil that lay beneath the state’s unbroken prairies. To these largely Protestant pioneers, the farms they plowed would not only enhance their personal fortunes but also yield the towns, villages, and churches that would save the frontier. In the century and a half that followed, millions of immigrants from across the globe similarly flocked to the state in search of their own kind of redemption. Catholics and Jews from across Europe and Latin America joined Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other traditions from Africa and Asia in transforming Illinois’s small towns into some of the most religiously diverse cities in the world. To them, the jobs they found, the shops they opened, and the communities they built were more than just material necessities. They were also refuges from the famines, revolutions, and pogroms of home. As many of the half-million black Southerners who fled Jim Crow for Illinois in the decades between the World Wars put it, cities like Chicago, with their industry and community, were nothing short of a “Promised Land.”

This almost religious belief in capitalism’s power to transform and uplift families, communities, and nations has long informed Illinoisans at the polls. In addition to accounting for the state’s fervent pride in the value of hard work, it also helps explain why a state more known for the strength of its unions has also produced and elected some of the nation’s most pro-business conservatives. Ronald Reagan, for example, claimed to have learned the importance of unfettered entrepreneurship while growing up in Dixon, where his parents owned a small dry goods store. The state voted handily for him twice, helped elect his Republican successor, and continues to regularly send a number of conservative leaders to Congress. And while Reagan and many of these elected officials are in many ways the ideological opposites of a fellow party member like Lincoln, their politics were quintessentially Illinoisan in their attempts to use public policy to unlock capitalism’s sacred potential. Lincoln’s support for free labor was as much about atoning for the nation’s sins of slavery as it was about ensuring its prosperity. Reagan, meanwhile, cast economic regulation not only as detriments to America’s financial growth but as impediments to a soul’s access to the sacred market.

I don’t think my grandfather ever thought he would save the country working in an auto factory, nor was this white, native-born Protestant fleeing oppression. But his move to the state was just as much an economic pilgrimage. Like Lincoln, he too hailed from Kentucky, a part of a much smaller migration of white Appalachians to Illinois’s industrial centers in the decades after the Second World War. He followed an implausible rumor northward that factories in the state were paying more than two dollars an hour for entry-level work. Such wages were unheard of in the coal towns where he was from. So in 1964, he moved my grandmother and mother to a small town with a funny French name, Belvidere, where he got a job at what was then the largest automotive plant in the world. To him the job was a godsend, a chance to provide his family with opportunities he thought unavailable in Appalachia. Where I would later see an eyesore, my grandfather looked at that Chrysler Automotive Plant and saw a blessing.

In Illinois, wealth, prosperity, and economic ambition have rarely been in conflict with religious faith. Rather, they have been integral to the state’s development, collaboratively fostering an abiding faith in the American marketplace.

But with such high hopes have also come steep expectations.


AS A WHITE, WORKING-CLASS, former Southerner, my grandfather was in many ways the quintessential evangelical, right down to his membership in a Southern Baptist church. He believed deeply in Scripture and would occasionally remark upon the world’s moral decline, wondering if it might mean that Jesus was returning soon. The church he attended near Belvidere was full of the rants against liberals and secular humanists that often define stereotypes of American evangelicalism. Yet my grandfather departed from such conventions of American religious life in crucial ways. In addition to being a church deacon who took pride in his perfect Sunday school attendance, my grandfather was also an active, loyal, dues-paying member of the United Auto Workers who knew how to vote his economic self-interests. While pundits, the press, and even academics would define my grandfather’s faith by the sermons he heard on Sunday, his religious world was never so narrowly defined. Rather, it also included such seemingly worldly rituals like paying the mortgage or feeding my mother. His politics almost always emerged from these latter spaces. Rarely did the dictates of the former determine them.

Such practical economic concerns have long been the most accurate barometer of Illinois’s political life. Its voting record notwithstanding, Illinois’s faith in the opportunities capitalism affords has rarely blinded it to the inequalities capitalism invariably yields. The conditions in which many have lived often made such disparities unavoidable. Even Illinois’s midsized cities contained, and continue to contain, the industrial slums and blighted neighborhoods first described by Chicago-based novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). The low wages, poor housing, and lack of services endemic in these communities has meant that campaigns in the state are often about ameliorating or rectifying capitalism’s most immediate injustices.

This is not to say, however, that the grassroots efforts of everyday Illinoisans did not shape national concerns. The infamous Pullman Strike of 1894, which eventually shut down railroad traffic nationwide, began as a protest of 3,000 Chicago factory workers over a wage cut. Out of the conflict emerged an association of Illinois railroad executives who worked closely with the U.S. Attorney General to perfect the use of federal court injunctions to break organized labor. The practice remained in place throughout much of the twentieth century, curbed only by the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Workers in the Prairie State proved essential here as well, helping to “make a New Deal,” in the words of one historian, by joining steelworker, coal miner, and meat packer unions by the millions.

Religious institutions and ideas have been central to these efforts to engage and shape capitalism. Often the most recognized and respected members of working-class communities, religious leaders have been essential allies in advancing and publicizing Illinois’s economic struggles. The minister of Pullman’s Methodist Episcopal Church, William Carwardine, became the strikers’ religious spokesperson, reminding both the company and the general public of Scripture’s own injunction that “the laborer was worthy of his hire.” Religious spaces have also been vital in providing a safe place for Illinois’s dispossessed to coordinate and organize. The devotional societies and religious associations of the state’s largely Catholic industrial workers became staging grounds for the formation of CIO locals, while parish priests became key interlocutors in building the New Deal coalition.

Yet Illinois’s religious communities have done more than just logistically support political campaigns. They have also spiritually sustained them. As a young, more secular Barack Obama learned while organizing black communities on Chicago’s South Side, faith has often been the most potent weapon of the oppressed. After years of writing off African American ministers for their emphasis upon preparing for the next world over changing this one, Obama has said his entire view of the black church changed after attending Trinity United Church of Christ when it was led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. There he discovered how worship, prayer, and congregation were essential for steeling one’s soul for the fight. And while Obama’s association with Trinity and Wright has since become beset by controversy, it should not distract us from the power of its devotions, where Obama recorded an elderly woman praising God amidst the city’s violence and poverty for “carrying us this far.”

Indeed, religion has carried Illinois’s politics of late. This fervent faith in the cause of justice and economic equality has knitted together a number of labor, immigrant, African American, and community organizations into a loose coalition whose ardent support for economic equality has made Illinois the Democratic stronghold it is today. Last spring, more than one hundred ministers, priests, and rabbis sent an open letter to Senator Mark Kirk letting him know their support for his reelection hinged upon extending the nation’s unemployment benefits. After twice rejecting the measure, the senator caved. Illinois’s Interfaith Worker Justice has similarly coordinated with religious communities in the cause of economic justice, sponsoring “Labor Sunday” rallies with the Illinois AFL-CIO. Participating churches invite local union leaders to talk to their congregations about their community’s most pressing labor struggles. And in South Chicago, Crosswalk, an interfaith organization founded at All Saints Episcopal Church, has organized a number of rallies, marches, and summits to advocate for an increase in both firearm regulation and economic development in order to stem the tide of gun violence that has wracked Chicago of late.


MY GRANDFATHER GOT OUT of the factory while the getting was good. He retired after 35 years on the line and lived comfortably on his pension and Social Security until his death a decade ago. His coworkers, however, have not been as lucky. In 2006, Belvidere’s Chrysler factory became the first automotive plant in the world to assemble vehicles entirely by robotics. The transition sent waves of unemployment through town, a trend the Great Recession of 2008 only escalated. And unlike the rest of the Heartland, Illinois has yet to experience much of the Rust Belt’s recent recovery. The state’s credit rating remains the nation’s lowest, while its 8.3 percent total unemployed rate is surpassed only by Nevada and Rhode Island. Conditions are often even worse at the local level where double-digit unemployment rates recently ranked among the nation’s highest. In fact, the Belvidere region’s enduring 9.4 percent unemployment rate is less than a half a point below that other paragon of postindustrial America, Detroit.

But as before, Illinois’s religious commitments and economic realities continue engage and shape each other. In light of the current downturn, one local congregation now offers its long-term unemployed members career transition services, as if the church is recommitting to its belief in capitalism’s transformative power. Others, however, continue to draw inspiration and resources from religious sources to engage in direct action over economic issues, as when a number of priests, rabbis, and local ministers took the streets alongside striking fast food workers in support of turning America’s minimum wage into a living one. And as the economy continues to improve while rates of inequality persist, there is no reason to believe such debates will cease.

Capitalism in America has generated some of the globe’s greatest prosperity. Yet Americans have benefited from this prosperity in unavoidably unequal ways. How these benefits and blessings should be apportioned has been one of America’s most enduring political questions. And in Illinois, as elsewhere, it has also been a decidedly religious one.

Christopher D. Cantwell is assistant professor of public history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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