A Theology of Streets

Chris Cantwell

State and Adams Streets, Chicago (1903)
In the earliest days in the study of "lived religion" scholars searched not only for a method with which to explore the religious lives of ordinary people, but also a metaphor. By 1980 scholars like Natalie Zemon Davis and Peter Burke had made the "carnival" a reigning paradigm in the study of what they called "popular religion," a term that embodied not only the conviviality of daily religious life but also its primary location in the folk life of local communities. Advocates envisioned the study of lived religion as a corrective to the the carnival's popular excesses, a criticism of its assumption that the "authentic" or "true" religious lives of ordinary people could only be found outside of, and preferably in opposition to, established ecclesiastical institutions. While a fair or bazaar may be imbued with religious meaning, they argued, the religion lived out by ordinary people could often often be found in both the church and the carnival, not just in one or the other.

But how to describe this liminal space?

The prevailing metaphor that has come to describe the site of lived religion is by in large of Robert Orsi's invention. Of the many gifts his now canonical The Madonna 115th Street gave to the field, one of the most enduring has been his characterization of the Italian-American festa to the Madonna of Mt. Carmel as a "theology of the streets." The phrase perfectly encapsulated lived religion's emphasis upon the complexity and sophistication of people's daily religious worlds, combining a term associated with traditional institutions (theology) with a site church historians had rarely taken into consideration (the streets). The festa's theology may not have been found in texts, but the meanings these ritual processions made drew from, and in many instances shaped, the doctrine that emanated from above.

I've been thinking about this phrase "the theology of the streets" a lot of late. It relates directly with my (hopefully) soon-to-be-finished book project on the social history of Protestant fundamentalism in Chicago. The project in many ways took inspiration from Orsi, attempting to connect the often intellectual histories of the first wave of fundamentalism with the everyday religious lives of Protestant laypeople in a city that fostered some of the movement's most important institutions. Where other scholars had written about high theology and denominational conflicts, I wanted to write about local congregations and lay devotions--an evangelical "theology of the streets." But what I've been most struck with in finishing my book is that in many instances "the streets" have been as much an object of theological reflection as its location.

In rapidly developing metropolises like Chicago, public utilities were a primary concern for many city dwellers at the dawn of the twentieth century. Cities were generally filthy, crowded, and unhealthy places to live, making the development of municipal services like paved roads, functioning sewers, trash removal, and especially streetcar service not only exigent, but also lucrative. In Chicago, the city council typically issued exclusive charters to private corporations to provide most of these services either in certain parts of the city or, in the case of streetcars, on specific streets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the process became (and kind of remains) fantastically corrupt in the Windy City. Alderman handed out contracts to shell companies they owned, while even independent contractors quickly determined that the best way to realize a profit from a fixed consumer market was to offer subpar service. As former convict Charles Tyson Yerkes put it after he had bribed his way into founding most of Chicago's "L" system, "The strap-hangers pay the profits."

West Side residents protest Chicago's streetcar lines in the 1880s.
Given both the importance and mismanagement of these early public utilities, they were the source of constant conflict and reform in cities like Chicago--especially amongst the largely white, middle-class, evangelical Protestants who lived in the city's residential neighborhoods and thus especially relied on streetcars to get to their clerical jobs downtown. They protested the city's corrupt utilities repeatedly, often wrapping their critiques in moral and religious language. In extending a firm exclusive rights to provide the community with what it had deemed to be an essential service, these laypeople cast their relationships to their utilities less as a political arrangement and more like a community membership not unlike the churches they nearly all attended.  The failure of any public utility to provide adequate service was therefore as much an offense to some deeper sense of Christianity community--where each member was their brothers's keepers and adherents to the golden rule--as it was a breach of contract. The sentiment yielded a variety of surprising political arrangements in Chicago we've heretofore overlooked,  from evangelists advocating municipal ownership from their pulpits to one self-identified fundamentalist Bible class teacher who ran for local, state, and national office on the Socialist Party ticket.

Infrastructure is more often the domain of the new history of capitalism than the study of religion. But as a number of recent works discussed on this blog have made clear, the history of capitalism is very much also a history of religion. Given this broader fiscal turn in the study of religion, I'm wondering what new metaphors we'll need for projects who study those who offered up a theology of streets rather than theologizing while upon them. Journalist Nathan Schneider has suggested we think about the study of religion as a kind of commons. But the phrase that keeps circling in my mind is that we're now studying various kinds of "faith in the market." What do others think?


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