The Religious Left, Reborn
By: Steven Malanga
City Journal | Friday, October 19, 2007
Everyone knows that the Christian Right is a potent force in American politics. But since the mid-nineties, an increasingly influential religious movement has arisen on the left, mostly escaping the national press’s notice. The movement expends its political energies not on the cultural concerns that primarily motivate conservative evangelicals, but instead on an array of labor and economic issues. Working mostly at the state and local level, and often in lockstep with unions, the ministers, priests, rabbis, and laity of this new Religious Left have lent their moral authority to a variety of left-wing causes, exerting a major, sometimes decisive influence in campaigns to enforce a “living wage,” to help unions organize, and to block the expansion of nonunionized businesses like Wal-Mart, among other struggles. Indeed, the movement’s effectiveness has made it one of organized labor’s most reliable allies.
The new Religious Left is in one sense not new at all. It draws its inspiration from the Christian social-justice movement that formed in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to the emerging industrial economy, which many religious leaders viewed—with some justification—as brutal and unfair to workers. In America, the movement gained traction thanks largely to the efforts of Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, who served New York City’s poor. Unlike nineteenth-century reformers who sought to help the poor by teaching them the bourgeois virtues of hard work, thrift, and diligence, Rauschenbusch believed that the best way to uplift the downtrodden was to redistribute society’s wealth and forge an egalitarian society. In Christ’s name, capitalism had to fall. “The Kingdom of God is a collective conception,” Rauschenbusch wrote in Christianity and the Social Crisis, politicizing the Gospel’s message. “It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”
Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel,” as it came to be called, fell out of favor after World War I, when the violence of the Russian Revolution and the radicalization of European workers alarmed many American Christians. But in milder forms, the notion persisted that clergy should minister to the needy not by guiding souls to heavenly paradise but by seeking structural changes in society. In 1919, the Catholic philosopher Monsignor John Ryan gained a wide following by calling for pro-union legislation, steep taxes on wealth, and more stringent business regulation. When FDR adopted several of Father Ryan’s ideas in the 1930s, the priest was given the sobriquet “the Right Reverend New Dealer.” His popularity reflected the tightening alliance between America’s mainstream churches and organized labor.
That alliance disintegrated during the 1960s. Left-wing clerics like the notorious rebel priests the Berrigan brothers began to agitate for a wider range of radical causes—above all, a swift end to the Vietnam War. The more culturally conservative blue-collar workers who formed the union movement’s core wanted no part of this. The rift between the Religious Left and labor leaders would last for several decades.
The mending of that rift—and the arrival on the political scene of a new, union-friendly, Religious Left during the mid-nineties—owes much to the tireless efforts of savvy labor bosses, especially AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. The son of Irish immigrants, Sweeney grew up in a prototypical Catholic pro-union household; when he took over the AFL-CIO in 1996, he resolved to restore the bonds between church and labor. In a 1996 speech to a Catholic symposium, Sweeney evoked an era when labor unions were mighty and churches stood squarely behind them: “In our modest home in the Bronx, there were three things central to our lives: our family, the Church, and the union,” he recalled. With union membership shrinking—from 24 percent of the workforce 30 years ago to 14.5 percent in 1996 (and just 12 percent today)—“unions need aggressive participation by the Church in our organizing campaigns,” he implored church leaders.
The Sweeney-led AFL-CIO reenergized the old alliance. Soon after he took office, the AFL-CIO launched “Labor in the Pulpits,” a program that encouraged churches and synagogues to invite union leaders to preach the virtues of organized labor and tout its political agenda. Labor in the Pulpits has steadily expanded: nearly 1,000 congregations in 100 cities nationwide now take part annually. Sweeney himself has preached from the pulpit of Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, urging congregants to join antiglobalization protests in the capital. In Los Angeles, caravans of union activists have visited black churches on Labor Day Sunday, dispensing contributions from union locals. San Jose union leaders, seeing amnesty for illegal aliens as a way to garner new recruits, have asked churchgoers to support it. And in Des Moines, a vice president of the United Steelworkers told a Methodist congregation: “In America today, the pursuit of profits takes precedence over the pursuit of justice—and working families are suffering the consequences.”
Under the auspices of Labor in the Pulpits, clerics in America’s mainstream churches—Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians—have composed guidelines for union-friendly sermons and litanies, as well as inserts for church bulletins that promote union legislation. One insert, distributed in 2006, asked congregants to pray for a federal minimum-wage hike and also—if the prayers didn’t work, presumably—to contact their congressional representatives. Another recent one encouraged churchgoers to arrange home viewings of an anti-Wal-Mart documentary, to stop shopping at the retail giant, and to patronize Costco, a unionized competitor. A 2005 insert urged congregants to lobby Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act—controversial legislation that would let unions organize firms merely by getting workers to sign authorizing cards, rather than by conducting secret ballots, as is currently required.
Unions are also cultivating the next generation of church leaders. “Seminary Summer,” an initiative created with the Chicago-based, union-supported Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), arranges for seminarians to spend the summer months working with union locals. “Within three years most of these students will be in leadership positions in congregations,” predicted IWJ head Kim Bobo shortly after the program began in 2000. Since then, some 200 seminarians have helped unionize Mississippi poultry workers, aided the Service Employees International Union in organizing Georgia public-sector employees, and bolstered campaigns for living-wage legislation in California municipalities.
Seminary Summer seems to be sparking considerable enthusiasm among participants. “Before Seminary Summer, I had been leery, even suspicious, of labor unions,” remarked Lori Peterson of Loyola University, a 2006 enrollee. But afterward, she said, “I began to believe in the labor movement again. The training gave me a new perspective on unions and how important they are to creating equality and justice.” Chicago Divinity School student Beau Underwood, who took part in 2007, is equally fervent. “One staple of a union organizer’s toolbox is the bullhorn and I love it,” he noted on his blog. “One of the very first days I led chants during an early-morning hotel picket line. Just today, I ‘bullhorned’ at customers of a hotel being boycotted by the union.”
“Younger seminarians may be particularly receptive to such experiences,” suggests Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, which tries to educate religious leaders on the compatibility of free-market principles with Christian beliefs. “Seminarians are preaching all the time,” he adds, “and if they don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.”
Working with IWJ, the labor movement has spawned some 60 new Religious Left groups, ranging from the Massachusetts Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice to the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues to the Los Angeles–based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (Clue). These organizations have given unions an effective ally, especially in town councils, city halls, and state capitols, which have proven more union-friendly than Washington, D.C., in recent years.
Nowhere have these efforts borne more fruit than in Los Angeles, where Clue has recruited some 600 religious leaders to back worker causes. Clue clergy helped crush several 2005 statewide ballot initiatives that unions opposed, including one that gave union workers the option of not paying dues that would fund union political activities. In 2006, Clue pressure, including a fast for striking workers, helped prompt building owners in greater L.A. to allow security guards to unionize. Two years earlier, Clue had united about 50 local congregations to support 4,000 workers demanding more money and better benefits from 17 area hotels. Clergy asked the faithful to boycott the hotels until their owners caved—as, in the end, they did.
Interfaith coalitions have scored similar victories elsewhere. In Memphis, for instance, clergy fought relentlessly—via newspaper op-eds, public fasts, and preaching—for the passage of living-wage bills that since 2004 have forced local businesses to hike wages well above the federal minimum. “The living-wage effort here was pushed mainly by local clergy,” says Ken Hall, former vice president for the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce, which battled the measures.
Noting the success of Memphis’s living-wage battle and of similar campaigns in which religious leaders have played key roles, unions and their allies have made recruiting Religious Left support part of the activist playbook—an inspired strategy, since polls show that even secular Americans consider clergy our most admired profession. The Wayne State University Labor Studies Center’s “activist handbook” advises living-wage campaigns always to put religious leaders out front. “As soon as you have clergy arguing for something called a ‘living wage,’ you’ve lost the battle if you’re representing businesses,” Hall observes. “If I was debating against union members advocating for a ‘surplus wage law,’ which is what living-wage laws actually are, we would have won.” Pro-labor Berkeley city councilman Kriss Worthington echoes the point from the other side of the fence. “When a politician or union proposes something, people start out with a questioning attitude,” he said after clerics helped sway the council to endorse a labor initiative. “When you have a faith community, it adds a moral and ethical component”—all the more effective in that the Religious Left essentially has the spiritual terrain to itself on economic matters, which Christian conservative groups have mostly ignored. The labor-religious coalitions have worked spectacularly well: some 125 municipalities have passed living-wage laws.
Some of America’s most venerable Protestant denominations have thrown their institutional weight behind the new alliance with labor. More than 100 religious organizations support IWJ financially, including the National Council of Churches of the USA (NCC), an umbrella organization of nearly 40 mainstream Christian denominations. Key NCC members such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church are particularly active. Though it was founded in 1950 to promote ecumenical cooperation, the NCC has become a clearinghouse for religious participation in left-wing causes. Heavily funded by liberal groups like the Tides Foundation and the Ford Foundation, during the 2004 national elections the NCC organized the Let Justice Roll campaign, which focused on voter registration drives in Democratic areas, and it renewed the campaign in 2006, this time with an emphasis on helping statewide groups pass referenda raising the minimum wage.
The new alliance between labor and religion also enjoys the powerful backing of the Catholic Church, whose American hierarchy, though often conservative on social issues, is firmly left-wing in its economic views. Several dozen major Catholic groups—including the Catholic Conference of Bishops, Catholic Charities, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles—contribute financially to interfaith workers’ groups and assist their lobbying efforts. At a national conference, Bishop Gabino Zavala of L.A. went so far as to compare labor leaders with Old Testament prophets, praising them for “bringing the same conviction, ideals, passion, commitment to justice, energy for human rights, and sense of mission to their bold words and actions, to their union organizing and coalition building.”
Having established itself in many places as the moral authority on economic issues, the resurgent Religious Left has brought back the fiery redistributionist language of the social gospel. Despite decades of economic progress that have reduced unemployment levels to record lows and made America a magnet for opportunity-seeking immigrants, clerical anticapitalism increasingly echoes Rauschenbusch’s old notion that “it is hard to get riches with justice.” Leading clergy have depicted the free market as a vast, exploitative force, controlled by a small group of godless power brokers for their own gain. Speaking to a national conference of religious and labor leaders, IWJ’s copresident, the Reverend Nelson Johnson, called for America to save itself from “its own arrogance, its selfishness and greed” and admonished an elite “wallowing in the obscenity of massive unearned wealth.” In a scriptural reflection distributed for Labor in the Pulpits this year, the Reverend Darren Wood, a Methodist and the author of Blue Collar Jesus, criticized “the gluttony of the wealthy and the abusive powers of corporations” and declared that Christ envisioned “an alternate economy of equality.” To achieve that egalitarian vision, the IWJ’s Bobo recently pronounced, America needs a “redistribution” to “shift wealth from a few to working families.”
The Religious Left reserves some of its most hyperbolic rhetoric for Wal-Mart, the labor movement’s bête noire. Clergy describe the giant retailer in terms that its thousands of suppliers, millions of employees, and tens of millions of customers would hardly recognize. The Reverend Jarvis Johnson, an IWJ board member, has urged congregants to invite the “hurting, blind and crippled” to a metaphorical banquet. Who are these poor, abused souls? “They are Wal-Mart associates who have to wait six months to a year to qualify for a health care plan,” Johnson explained. The Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran minister and head of Clue, compares Wal-Mart with “the noblemen of Luther’s time,” whom the German monk denounced for robbing the poor.
Religious Left leaders have blindly accepted all that the unions claim about corporate America’s sins. In backing the Employee Free Choice Act, for instance, clerics argue that laws and rulings by anti-union government bureaucrats have crippled workers’ ability to organize—the big reason, they claim, that union membership has plummeted. “Our government seems determined to undermine the people’s right to organize in the United States,” charged the Reverend Nelson Johnson earlier this year, in reaction to a National Labor Relations Board ruling that broadened the definition of “supervisor,” narrowing the number of people eligible to join unions as hourly employees. But the real reason for labor’s decline is simply that many workers, enjoying their mobility in the prosperous, dynamic twenty-first-century American economy, now view unions as irrelevant. A 2005 Zogby poll found that only 35 percent of non-organized workers would join a union if given the opportunity. And contrary to the clerics who rail against abusive corporate power, 70 percent of workers in the same survey said that their companies cared about them, and 72 percent claimed to be happy in their jobs.
The Religious Left also refuses to acknowledge the considerable academic research showing that mandated wage hikes often eliminate the jobs of low-skilled workers—the very people whom it seeks to help. In editorials, the Reverend Rebekah Jordan, a Methodist minister who heads Memphis’s local interfaith group, used union-sponsored research to argue that living-wage laws benefit workers and do little harm to employment rates. But David Neumark, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Business and Economics Research and one of the world’s foremost authorities on wage laws, has found that while living-wage laws do boost the income of some low-wage workers, they also have “strong negative employment effects”—that is, they vaporize jobs. In one study, Neumark noted that a 50 percent boost in the living wage produced a decline in employment for the lowest-skilled workers of between 6 and 8 percent.
Further, the leftist clerics ignore mounting evidence that much poverty in prosperous, opportunity-rich America results not from a failed economic system but from dysfunctional—dare one call it “sinful”?—behavior. Around two-thirds of poor families with children today are single-parent households, largely dependent on government subsidies. Single women with little education head most of these households. The kind of work for which these mothers are qualified—entry-level, low-wage—makes it hard to support large families; and the time that they must devote to raising their kids makes it hard, in turn, to climb the economic ladder. Poverty, in other words, is increasingly about the irresponsible decision—again, we might once have called it sinful—to have children out of wedlock. In a recent study on American poverty highlighted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists from the University of California at Davis found that “changes in family structure—notably a doubling of the percent of families headed by a single woman—can account for a 3.7 percentage point increase in poverty rates, more than the entire rise in the poverty rate from 10.7 percent to 12.8 percent since 1980.”
By contrast, observes Catholic neoconservative writer Michael Novak, research demonstrates that the way out of poverty for most Americans is to make a few simple life choices. “Some 97 percent of those who complete high school, stay married (even if not on the first try), and work full-time year-round (even at the minimum wage) are not poor,” Novak points out. “Nearly all poverty in the United States is associated with the absence of one or more of these three basic accomplishments”—not with insufficient social spending or a lack of economic opportunity.
Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, charges that leftist clerics have become part of the poverty problem. “The Religious Left has abdicated responsibility as a moral authority,” says Palmer, who in 2003 faced off against religious leaders after they backed Alabama governor Bob Riley’s push to raise taxes. Palmer argues that religious groups can play a significant role in fighting poverty—but only by striving to strengthen the family and personal responsibility. “The attitude of the Religious Left seems to be, ‘Let government do it,’ and they would drive us toward a kind of Christian socialism,” he says.
Not only are the Religious Left’s fuzzy, shopworn ideas out of step with the latest poverty research; they’re also at odds with the opinions of many congregants. Consider the leftist clergy’s latest initiative, “New Sanctuary.” Opposing government efforts to deport illegal immigrants, the IWJ has helped organize a national network of congregations that grant illegal aliens sanctuary in their churches. Responding to critics who complain that religious leaders shouldn’t assist lawbreakers, Bobo counters: “There is a strong belief among many people of faith that if laws are unjust, there may be times and situations in which laws should be broken.”
But many American Christians don’t share that belief, at least when it comes to immigration. According to a Pew Center poll, more white, mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics condemn helping illegal immigrants evade the law than condone such behavior. “Despite the strong pro-immigrant statements issued recently by a number of prominent religious leaders,” Pew noted, “polls show that a large segment of the public—including many Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals—harbor serious concerns about immigration and immigrants.”
The dissonance between Religious Left leaders and their congregants on immigration isn’t anomalous. While the NCC and its member churches pursue a variety of left-wing causes—even partnering with the activist organization MoveOn.org and featuring speakers like Michael Moore at events—a Pew poll has found that 54 percent of white, mainline Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics voted Republican in the 2004 presidential elections. Those who attended church regularly voted Republican even more heavily—at nearly the same rate as evangelical Christians, in fact.
Those numbers are a reminder that for four decades, as the leadership of America’s mainline Christian churches has moved steadily leftward, those churches’ memberships have declined as a percentage of the U.S. population, even as the number of Christian evangelicals exploded. Cultural issues drove most of the flight from old-line churches, which became as liberal socially as anticapitalist economically; believers moved to more conservative congregations, whose positions on issues such as abortion and the traditional family lined up more comfortably with their own. So the left-wing clerics may be buying greater political influence with their new alliance through organized labor, but in so doing they may wind up further alienating their shrinking flock.
Steven Malanga is senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of The New New Left, a collection of his City Journal essays.
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