Everyone knows the potent force of the Christian right in American politics. But since the mid-1990s, an increasingly influential religious movement has arisen on the left, mostly escaping the national press's notice.
This new religious left does not expend its political energies on the cultural concerns that primarily motivate conservative evangelicals. Instead, working mostly at the state and local level, and often in lockstep with unions, its ministers, priests, rabbis, and laity exert 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.
The new religious left is in one sense not new at all. It draws its inspiration in part from the Protestant "social gospel" movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially Baptist Minister Walter Rauschenbusch, who believed that the best way to uplift the downtrodden was to redistribute wealth and forge an egalitarian society. Rauschenbusch called for the creation of a kingdom of heaven here on earth—just as presidential candidate Barack Obama did last week at a church in South Carolina.
The popular Catholic writer John Ryan also advocated that government enact pro-union legislation, steep taxes on wealth, and more stringent business regulation. When FDR adopted several of Ryan's ideas, 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, when 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 alliance has been revitalized thanks in large part to savvy labor bosses such as John Sweeney, who grew up in a prototypical Catholic pro-union household. When Mr. Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1996, union membership was shrinking—from 24% of the work force 30 years ago to 14.5% in 1996 (and just 12% today). He told church leaders that "unions need aggressive participation by the Church in our organizing campaigns."
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. Nearly 1,000 congregations in 100 cities nationwide now take part annually. Mr. Sweeney himself has preached from the pulpit of Washington, D.C.'s National Cathedral, urging congregants to join anti-globalization protests in the capital.
Under the auspices of Labor in the Pulpits, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian clerics have composed guidelines for union-friendly sermons and litanies, as well as inserts for church bulletins that promote union legislation. One insert 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 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.
The Chicago-based, union-supported Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) arranges for seminarians to spend the summer months working with union locals. 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.
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). In Los Angeles, 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 Memphis, 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. Labor-religious coalitions have worked spectacularly well: Some 125 municipalities have passed living-wage laws.
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. The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church are particularly active. The alliance between labor and the religious left 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.
Despite decades of economic progress that have reduced unemployment levels to record lows and made America a magnet for opportunity-seeking immigrants, leading clergy of the religious left depict the free market as a vast exploitative force, controlled by a small group of godless power brokers. Clergy describe Wal-Mart, for example, 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," Mr. Johnson explained.
Religious left leaders blindly refuse 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. David Neumark, for example—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, Mr. Neumark noted that a 50% boost in the living wage produced a decline in employment for the lowest-skilled workers of between 6% and 8%.
Religious left clerics also ignore the evidence that much poverty in prosperous, opportunity-rich America results from dysfunctional—dare one call it "sinful"?—behavior. Around two-thirds of poor families today are single-parent households, largely dependent on government subsidies and headed by women with little education. The entry-level, low-wage work for which these mothers are qualified makes it hard to support large families. And the time they must devote to raising their kids makes it hard to climb the economic ladder. Poverty is increasingly about the irresponsible decision to have children out of wedlock. In many inner city communities where poverty is entrenched, 75% of all children are now born out of wedlock.
In any event, the religious left's sympathies do not seem to be those of churchgoers. 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 found that 54% of white, mainline Protestants and 50% 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.
For four decades, as the leadership of America's mainline churches has moved steadily leftward, those churches' memberships declined as a percentage of the U.S. population while the number of Christian evangelicals exploded. Left-wing clerics may be buying greater political influence with their alliance through organized labor, but the price may be further alienating their shrinking flock.
Steve Malanga is senior editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, from whose autumn issue this is adapted.