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….
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….
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.” […]