The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on January 30, 2013
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!

As readers of my blog have discovered (perhaps with a measure of irritation) my favorite cognitive style is free association. The following post is an exercise in putting together bits and pieces—in the event: flea markets, cowboys, hobos and the root insight of anarchism.

This exercise was triggered by the issue of The Christian Century on January 23, 2013. The cover story, a rather surprising one for this usually staid banner publication of mainline Protestantism, has the title “Flea Market Capitalists”. The story is by Arthur E. Farnsley II (a mainline Protestant name if there ever was), who holds a Ph.D. from Emory University, teaches and researches about American religion, and also proudly identifies himself as a repeated tomahawk champion of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association. The article summarizes some of the findings of his recent book Flea Market Jesus (2012).  I have not read the book, but I can warmly recommend the article.

Flea markets are marginal businesses—literally dealing with bits and pieces of discarded merchandise. The businesses are generally operated by poor people who use its scanty profits to augment equally scanty income from other sources (many of them are on disability). Farnsley’s research into flea markets was conducted over several years in central and southern Indiana. He was not primarily interested in the economics of the business, but in the culture and religion of its entrepreneurs.

The culture is peculiar. It characterizes people “who do not see themselves as belonging to any community… they experience institutions as centers of power and control who do things to them, not for them or with them”. They are icons of radical individualism. They are (sort of) small business people, express patriotic sentiments, and are quite religious (generally in an orthodox but unaffiliated form of Christianity). Yet they are distrustful of any institution—including large business (some keep money under the bed), government and church. Their religion has magical undertones (they believe in miracles), their God helps “little people like themselves”. They are attached to guns, “the ultimate ability to say no to coercion”, but they are unlikely to be loyal members of the National Rifle Association.

The quality that sticks out is a fierce devotion to individual freedom—“not to freedom to do whatever you want, but to freedom from being forced to do what you do not want”. Most of the flea market dealers are against abortion and homosexuality, but “I wouldn’t want to tell anyone else what to do”.  This is a basic personal value, not based on some libertarian or anarchist ideology. Farnsley, who describes himself as a libertarian, obviously sympathizes with these people, but he admits (one surmises, almost regretfully) that “most of us have too much to lose to chuck it all and sell socks at a flea market”.

The story in The Christian Century made me recall something that my colleague Christopher Marsh told me about a year ago. He was thinking of doing some research about a group calling itself “Cowboy Baptists” and who were about to have a convention in Texas. The research did not occur, but I was intrigued by what seemed to be an incongruous name of this group; I then forgot about it until now. It turns out that quite a lot of information about it is available on the Internet. As recently as October 08, 2012, the newsletter of the American Baptist Press carried an informative story by Jeff Brumley.

Going back to the 1970s, the Cowboy Baptists have become a sizable group. They have an organization, the Cowboy Church Network of North America (the name suggests some Canadian affiliates). As one would expect, the group is strongest in the Southwest (though there are branches as far north as Minnesota—or maybe Saskatchewan?); in Texas alone there are about 800 churches.  The group is characterized by an emphatically Evangelical faith and a cowboy lifestyle. The Evangelicalism expresses itself in intense missionary activity—“church planting”, in the customary Evangelical parlance. Once “planted”, every church immediately prepares to clone itself. The cowboy lifestyle is omnipresent—worship is very informal, people come to services in cowboy gear, services are held in connection with rodeos, preachers arrive on horseback, baptisms are often performed in cattle troughs. All of this is meant to make a certain category of people feel at home, as against the “roadblocks” they have encountered in more conventional churches. However, one cowboy pastor admits that most of his flock are “armchair cowboys who just love watching ‘Gunsmoke’ and don’t ride horses at all”.

What I find interesting in this phenomenon is a mélange of two cultures that are usually (and quite correctly) seen as opposites. It makes me think of a man I knew some years ago: He despised what he called the “health cult”, and he ceremonially desecrated it by pouring rich whipped cream over granola bars. (Or, if you prefer, imagine a big building in Washington containing the national lobby of flea market dealers.)  Cowboys have been associated with riotous living, both in historical fact and in the myth that has been propagated in American popular culture. Baptists (especially Southern Baptists) are associated with the very opposite: an uptight and abstemious way of life. (Old joke: “Why are Southern Baptists against premarital sex? – Because it may lead to dancing.”)  A white-washed sanctuary is the proper locale for good Baptists. The meeting place associated with cowboys is the saloon (and the whorehouse, frequently located one flight up—if one gives credence to Western movies). It is worth mentioning that the cowboy culture, at least today, is no longer exclusively male: There are many cowgirls, whose participation in the historic antics of the saloon may have some limits, but who apparently enjoy swaggering in their distinctive getup as much as their men. In any case, Cowboy Baptists celebrate a very distinctive form of ecumenicity, as embracive as any under the auspices of the World Council of Churches.

The lone cowboy riding into the sunset is a distinctive American icon. There are analogues elsewhere of solitary individuals moving from place to place. Both the loneliness and the freedom of the open road make up a cross-cultural narrative. There are the Travelers in Ireland, still today a distinctive and officially recognized “social group”.  Of course there are the Gypsies (who now prefer to be called Roma and Sinti), who may be the descendants of a Hindu caste of musicians who at some time began to move westward. The Jewish peddler was a well-known figure in eastern Europe. And going back into the Middle Ages, there were the wandering artisans appropriately called “journeymen”, the vagrant scholars, and last not least the troubadours in search of romantic encounters.

Back in America, there has been another myth, that of the hobo. He did not drive cattle across the prairies, but rode the freight trains criss-crossing the vast spaces of the continent. Here too is a figure of loneliness and freedom. He even had a kind of national anthem, the song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum”. There are different versions of its origin. According to one story, it was scribbled in 1897 on a prison wall in Kansas City by a hobo known as “One Finger Ellis”. It is sung to a tune that was originally a Protestant hymn “Revive us Again”. It was adopted by the famous Wobblies, the anarchist group whose official name was the Industrial Workers of the World; the IWW published the song in 1908. Its refrain went as follows:

Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout
To revive us again.

The Wobblies were the American expression of a much larger international phenomenon, which played an important role in European revolutionary movements in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Known as anarchism (the word in Greek means “without ruler/without government”), it become prominent in Russia and was associated with spectacular acts of terrorism. Dostoyevsky drew a very negative picture of anarchists in his novel The Possessed. Possibly its last moment of glory came during the Spanish civil war. Its militia, known by the acronym POUM, helped defend Barcelona against the Franco forces, until troops controlled by the Soviet security service massacred the anarchists from behind, literally shooting them in the back. (George Orwell wrote a memorable obituary to the POUM in his Homage to Catalonia, 1938.)

When I was a student at the New School for Social Research, where most classes let out late in the evening, a group of us often stayed around in the “Oviedo”, a bar on 14th Street owned by a veteran of the Spanish civil war. Over the urinals in the men’s room hung an inscription “Muerte a Franco!”, so that you could solemnly piss on the hated dictator. I cannot recall the beginning of a conversation I had with the owner; it may have been an occasion when I mentioned my passionate opposition (then as now) to the death penalty. The anti-fascist veteran put his hand on my shoulder and said: “It is clear that you are a decent person. All decent people are anarchists deep down”.

Was he right? No and yes. No, anarchism as a political ideology typically begins with senseless murders and ends in tyranny. But yes, there is a root insight, not in anarchist theories, but in what could be called an anarchist sensibility. The insight is that most institutions are based on fictions, often homicidal ones, and that individual freedom is a precious and precarious commodity that must ever again be defended—both against the coercive institutions of modernity and against the more subtle coercion of traditional community. The sociologist knows that society must provide a morally legitimated order of institutions, without which human life would descend into chaos. Balancing order and freedom is the challenge to the institutions of liberal democracy. But it is salutary to remember that all institutions, however benignly constructed, contain the potential of oppression—and that the core of individual dignity is the capacity to say no to the oppressors.

Image courtesy Shutterstock.

  • Gary Novak

    At the end of “The Heretical Imperative,” Berger says: “It is not given to men to make God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if God’s thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears.” Would not this way of thinking or cognitive style be “free association” (minus the psychoanalytic presuppositions)? Not my thoughts, Lord, but thine! I do not find that cognitive style irritating.

    I think it was R. G. Collingwood who said that, to some men you must give a problem, and they then bring to bear on it what competence they have. Others have something to say before they know what it is. They are the free associaters, and they are the ones most fun to listen to. They are the ones who, between their scholarly papers, hop a freight to Canada to visit flea market existentialists or take the plunge with cowboy Baptists in a Texas cattle trough. A delightful post— vintage Berger!

  • WigWag

    Off topic (to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what the “topic” of this post is) but perhaps of interest to Professor Berger’s readers is a new book pertinent to a wonderful essay the Professor published at this site on December 14, 2011. The post was entitled “Do The Three Abrahamic Faiths Worship The Same God?”

    As most of Berger’s posts are, the essay was very thought provoking and I could not help but remember it while I was reading Jon Levinson’s new book, “Inheriting Abraham.” Levinson is a well respected Professor of Theology at Harvard’s Divinity School; perhaps Berger is personally acquainted with him.

    Levinson indirectly references the question that Professor Berger poses in the title of that essay by examining the manner in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam view the Patriarch, Abraham.

    In a nutshell, Levinson demolishes the liberal myth that Abraham provides a point of confluence around which the three “Abrahamic faiths” can reconcile their differences and foster mutual understanding.

    A review of the book can be found here,

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/122502/our-abraham-not-theirs?all=1

    and a description of the book can be found here,

    http://www.amazon.com/Inheriting-Abraham-Patriarch-Judaism-Christianity/dp/0691155690

    I mention this in the hope that some of the readers of Professor Berger’s excellent blog will find this information useful. Of course, if Professor Berger or Damir Marusic object to my comment that is relevant to a year-old post but not this post, they should feel perfectly free to omit it.

    I’ve never seen a book review by Professor Berger. Getting his take on Levinson’s book would be a real treat.

  • On the contrary

    There is nothing essentially violent about anarchism, just as there is nothing essentially hostile to religion in atheism. It just so happens that most of those who bother to profess anarchism or atheism as ideologies, tend to be edgy and hostile people traumatized in some way by the institutions they conceive themselves to be in opposition to.

    True anarchists, however, are opposed to government, per se, precisely because they correctly understand that governments are necessarily founded on coercion, intimidation, and if necessary, violence. Thus, it really is true that “all decent people are anarchists deep down.” And Farnsley’s acknowledgement that “most of us have too much to lose to chuck it all and sell socks at a flea market” or for that matter to live the life of our choosing, but strictly according to libertarian or anarchist principles, is in reality an admission that we are all compromised by ceding our moral responsibility to governments, in return for the monetary and status handouts that they can provide. Virtually all Americans are thus complicit in the essentially immoral coercion of governments, and have too much to lose just in self-esteem to be honest about it and to recognize the fact.

    One unique person, a politician no less, who though no anarchist, has lived his political life according to a strict construction of Constitutional law, is Ron Paul. And while the principled stances he took in Congress for decades were generally seen as quixotic, Paul came surprisingly close last year to winning the Republican nomination, and if his ground team had been as well organized as that of Barry Goldwater in 1964, he might well have succeeded. And the polls near the end of the nominating process (in the run up to the Republican Convention) showed both Romney and Paul running neck and neck with the President. Had the Republican Party hacks not been temperamentally incapable of supporting a man of principle, Paul would actually have had a decent chance to win the election, whereas Romney was pretty much a sure loser, precisely because so many of Paul’s supporters were unable to bring themselves to vote for a Big Government (“Rockefeller”) Republican like Romney.

    Constitutionalism is in principle just a way station to anarchism (and don’t forget that most Virginians were opposed to ratification until Madison promised George Mason and other anti-federalist leaders to enact a bill of rights), but these recent political facts show that roughly half the American people have become sufficiently radicalized due to the accelerating political, economic, and moral deterioration of our society that they are ready to embrace radical change if need be. Our supposed leaders, and their media sycophants, will be the last to recognize the revolution cum civil war when it comes, and like the first American Revolution, and the Civil War (which was a counter-revolution, laying the foundations for modern Big Government) it will be fought out over anarchist, or at least libertarian, principles.

  • http://www.peterjessen-gpa.com Peter Jessen

    Wig Wag says she isn’t sure what the topic is. I read Berger’s topic to be, as in the last paragraph: continuing his efforts to understand the different ways individuals choose to deal with “the challenge to the institutions of liberal democracy,” namely “balancing order and freedom,” and how individuals find a way to fit into this process of balance or turn their backs to fly “under the radar,” opting out of both “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” (or “nones”), not trusting the mega institutions and not trusting the mediating structures to “renew civil society.”

    I like the way Berger weaves the root insight of the anarchist sensibility of dealing with the fictions of those institutions that “disaffect and disenchant” (hence his work on the need for renewal of civil society through “mediating structures”).

    When I lived in No. Virginia in the early and late 70s, early 80s, all the “rage” was garage sales (miniature flea markets by the affluent), flea markets (by the non-affluent as described by Berger, which the affluent garage sale-ers enjoyed), cowboys (regular farmers for which it is a 24-7 occupation as well as those who were “gentlemen farmers” for whom farms were weekend diversions, tax shelters, or both. One could add ad hoc farmer’s markets that set up and take down on weekends in the same manner of flea markets, which also were part of the No VA landscape.

    I’m further intrigued by how Berger uses both flea markets and hoboes / bums as examples of what he calls an “anarchist sensibility” of having “a fierce devotion to individual freedom” as they seek survival and safety from large institutions.

    I encountered this category of men during my boyhood in the 40s and early 50s, when we lived in a parsonage on the main street, 5 blocks from the railroad tracks. With layovers or load/unload stops, some would seek day work; others would go to phone booths to find a phone book to look up the nearest churches and knock on the door of the parsonage (sometimes front door, sometimes back door), seeking a sandwich or meal (in those days parsonages were usually next to the church). They treated my mother with deference and good manners. We were not afraid of them (1889 Hobo Code #2: “When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.” See below for others parts of the code).

    PBS ran a special, “Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression,” reporting that “At the height of the Great Depression, more than a quarter million teenagers were living on the road in America, many crisscrossing the country by illegally hopping freight trains.” A fascinating footnote is that Warner Brothers made a 1933 film, Wild Boys of the Road, with the purpose “to scare young people away from life on the rails,” only to find – no surprise to students of the unintended consequence — that although it did scare some, it “inspired” other young men who saw the film “to take to the rails,” for “adventure and freedom”.

    As one commentator put it in 2008, the “hoboes” in the 30s “were mainly intelligent, honest people trying to get by.” Another wrote about the 30s: “see hoboes for who and what they really are – people like the rest of us doing the best they can to get by in this world.”

    The closest they came to a community was to agree to follow their Cole of Ethics, established in 1889, geared to maintaining that balance to their sense of freedom and liberty with order along the rails, so hoboes coming through didn’t jeopardize places for following riders. Examples include
    #1: “Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.”
    #4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again?
    #9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
    #12. Do not cause problems in a train yard; another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
    #15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

    1860s: when it began in large scale: unemployed veterans of the Civil War.
    1930’s: Great Depression: unemployed teenagers, 250,000 strong) joined unemployed adults.
    1980s: unemployed “train gangs” emerged. The leading train gang, “The Freight Train Riders of America” (FTRA), established in Montana in 1984 by Vietnam veterans “unable to make a transition back to civilian society.” The romance of riding the rail is mostly gone, as now it is often about “violent drug dealers, illegal immigrants, and today’s type of homeless person, often mentally ill.”

    Today’s riders of the rails have reversed the situation from “saying no to the oppressors” to becoming oppressors themselves. The latter, no matter who or where, are on the negative side of the calculi of meaning and pain.

    Following the logic of the topic, may we not surmise that there may well be another “choice” for folks for their lives/livelihood that will enable them to sing the song of two cultures: “Hallelujah, I’m a bum,” which is OK because, “Hallelujah, I’m free.” Given current social welfare policy trends and the debate over makers and takers, will new chants emerge, such as “Hallelujah, I’m a taker” and, therefore, “Hallelujah, I’m free”? or “Hallelujah, I’m a maker” and, therefore, “Hallelujah, I’m free”?

  • Brenda Rigdon

    Hee is some more free association for you: in my husband’s family the song Hallelujah, i’m a Bum is considered a Christmas Carol and we sing it around the piano every holiday, along with Camptown Races.
    Why, you ask?
    Because my husband’s Grandmother had a very old copy of the sheet music in a book called American Folksongs, printed in the late 1940′s i believe.
    It included many traditional Christmas songs, and the aforementioned folks songs among many others.
    My Father in Law and his younger borther were asked one holiday,w hen they were children, to choose a favorite song to sing on Christmas eve–and one chose Hallelujah I’m a Bum and the other chose Camptown Races.
    Being blessed with excellent senses of humour, their parents agreed to sing them, and a new holdiay tradition was born.

    We all still sing them each year to this day.

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