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The Religious Left, Reborn

Steven Malanga

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A new generation of activist clergy promotes labor's economic agenda.

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.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 21-Oct-07

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