The Church of Labor
One source of labor’s woes that progressives would rather overlook: our too aggressive secularism.
By lowering church-state barriers in the social safety net, the faith-based initiative embraced a theory of libertas ecclesiae, or “freedom of the church,” a very ancient corporatist tradition rooted in the idea that church and state are each sovereign in their own sphere, but should cooperate where their missions overlap (as in education and social welfare). In its more diverse modern form, the point is simply that, wherever they are needed, sovereign associations should be supported by public law and, where applicable, by public funds. It was these same principles of sovereign association—bequeathed from the older corporatist traditions but given new life with the rise of the welfare state—that New Deal labor policy finally vindicated for organized labor in the long war of ideas.
Liberal secularism, of course, wants to limit the role of religion in the public sphere, and the hostile response of many progressives to Bush’s faith-based initiatives reflects that point of view. But proscribing religious associations from public benefits and an established place in public life has helped to reinforce a legal culture that also has no meaningful place for families, communities, or organized labor, and the resulting secular-religious divide has helped to drive a politics that seems more and more likely to destroy them all.
Of course, much could be said as well about the churches’ wavering witness in these times. A small but influential group of religious, particularly Catholic, intellectuals have worked assiduously to apply the Church’s economic and political teachings more or less along partisan—Republican—lines, and the effects of this long campaign can be felt in the budget debate today, in the health care reform debate of 2010 (the Affordable Care Act was opposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), and in many other areas. More and more, fundamental policy issues have been clouded by the view that the Church’s teachings, while theologically clear on many social goals, leave open for debate questions of policy and how to achieve those goals. And yet, even today, the most important social encyclicals offer real guidance on policy matters.
To take just one recent example on the question of empowering trade unions, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s first social encyclical, argues thus:
Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.
Progressive religious groups like Sojourners and Faith in Public Life have worked with renewed vigor to reframe policy debates in light of the churches’ traditional social teachings—most recently in a letter to the President and Congress, signed by 4,000 pastors and published in Politico, urging a “circle of protection” to deny harmful budget cuts against the poor and vulnerable; the Catholic bishops, too, played a very active role, spearheading and lobbying hard for the circle of protection. But in a highly partisan political climate, the religious left has had little success in building the kind of common ground—indeed, most likely a faith-based common ground—that we need today to move public policy forward on the most obvious major concerns, such as unemployment.
Rebuilding the authority of the “social faith” we inherit from the great religious forebears of collective bargaining, social insurance, and the just wage—this is the deeper task at hand. In part it is a question of the public standing not only of the ideas but of the institutions and associations that carry out the mission and bear witness to the need. Whether rocked by scandals or hamstrung by declining membership, most of the churches of the social faith have lost public authority. At the same time, progressives have often compounded this public retreat by opposing church-state partnerships in common mission areas—centrally, helping the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, so that the “last shall be first.”
Pope Benedict wrote poignantly about labor’s ever-harsher exposure to market compulsion in a world of deteriorating solidarity. But the “networks of solidarity,” as he put it, did not stand alone when they formerly thrived. They were a legal force, sovereign in the marketplace to exact fair returns for their work, so prosperity was finally reconciled to the common good. The most basic Christian idea about wealth and property—that their “common destiny” is to support the general welfare—had finally found a place in modernity. But empowering labor was always an anomaly in American law, and for reasons that are common to the other great defeat for associational freedom and power: the strict separation of church and state. Networks of solidarity take many forms, but they are united by the need for recognition in the law and for public purpose in their cause. In a free-market nation, labor and religion will rise or fall together according to that need. But this is not only about the old idea of coalitions. It is a question of law and associative freedom like never before.
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