What They Learned: Fiona Kegler ’21

The religion major learned how Protestant theological concepts have encouraged the social construction of Mississippi’s Black Codes and American penal systems.

America is often defined by its “Protestant work ethic,” the view that success can only be achieved through hard work, discipline, and thrift. For her thesis, religion major Fiona Kegler ’21 examined how such Protestant belief systems have supported the criminalization of idleness and the encouragement of work in America. 

Kegler, who also minored in sociology, argues that the Protestant theological concept of the “calling” reclassified one’s secular work as a way to worship God. This re-conception of work alongside capitalist ideologies and racist religious stereotypes affected the construction of U.S. laws around idleness and the introduction of enforced labor in U.S. penal systems.

“The legal document on which I focused was the Mississippi Black Codes, which features the term ‘calling’ for the purposes of regulating the terms of employment of freedmen and criminalizing behaviors seen as idle,” she said. “I also considered the formation of punishment at points before and after the formation of the Black Codes as indicative of the society’s wider values. The initial introduction and reinforcement of enforced labor in various forms as punishment and in prisons before and after the Civil War reflected our proclivity towards work as good and idleness as bad.”

The Black codes were laws that purposefully limited the freedoms of previously enslaved people after the abolishment of slavery to keep them as a poorly paid labor force. In Mississippi and other states, these included a requirement that they have regular work, at penalty of imprisonment or fines. 

“I chose the Mississippi Black Codes because they actually feature the term ‘calling’ and criminalize the behavior of ‘neglecting ones calling’,” said Kegler. “So they were very helpful at exploring the influence of the specific term–and the baggage of the term–on the construction of law.”

There is a habit to think only about theses as a final product, but Kegler said that many of the things she learned from her thesis came from the writing process itself. 

“Whilst editing my thesis, I found my own voice,” she said. “Writing in your own voice, even if it is not in keeping with what you think is ‘academic’ writing, can be liberating.”

What did you learn from working on your thesis?
When asked this question in a department meeting I joked that I’d learned, ‘Nothing is real. Everything is fake.’ While I was being slightly facetious and do believe some things are real, this conclusion largely holds up. My desire for this thesis was to peel back just a few of the layers of religious and historical factors that have created some of our basic assumptions about how to live life. Questioning and interrogating forces like the law and punishment is both disheartening and freeing. 

Something that I learned too close to the end of the process that I wish I had done differently was how freeing it would feel to write in my own voice. I began to bring in my own voice far too late in the process because I was preoccupied with evidence and structure. I remember feeling joyful when writing one day close to my deadline (which was an uncommon feeling throughout this process) and I realized it was because I was writing like myself.

What are the implications for your thesis research?
What I’m hoping my readers took away from this thesis is that even the most seemingly fundamental moral distinctions–work is morally good and idleness is morally bad–are not immutable, and we should always feel free to question these moral binaries. Furthermore, I hoped to begin to dispel the idea that the labels of ‘criminal’ and ‘non-criminal’ are binary and discrete, they are not. Criminality is constructed and the demonetization of someone solely because they are categorized as ‘criminal’ under the law is nonsensical.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.