Labor and the Church-State Wall: A Response to Lew Daly
I’ve about had my fill of the warmed-over Edmund Burke seeping all over bien-pensant social discourse. No one seems to have a good word to say about the Enlightenment anymore. These days they don’t even bother to dot the lines they draw between Diderot and Dachau. It’s becoming quite brazen—and brainless.
We get our Burkean bits in fairly mild doses from David Brooks, but much stronger doses aren’t hard to find. Case in point: In its Fall 2011 issue, the influential journal Democracy published “The Church of Labor,” a consideration of the historical significance of corporatism (no, not that kind) and, more specifically, of solidarism: the social ethic born of Roman Catholic belief and practice.
In a lengthy and entertaining ramble, author Lew Daly illuminates little-known intersections between Catholic thought and U.S. social history. One would have been pleased with just this much, but then Daly can’t resist grinding his axe in an unfortunate way. He wishes everyone to know that rights-based liberalism is the primary source of trade unionism’s current woes.
Daly makes no small claims:
It is no coincidence that the country with the strictest separation of church and state also has the lowest collective bargaining rates It is also no coincidence that those countries with the highest rates of collective bargaining also have either established or semi-established churches (Norway, Sweden, Finland), state-supported churches (Germany, Austria, Belgium), or strong constitutional principles of religious association and public involvement (the Netherlands)—and the latter four, all in the category of corporatist or partly corporatist welfare states, have extensive church-state partnerships in which religious bodies are sanctioned and often funded to provide public services.
He is even more direct later on, charging that:
[E]mpowering 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.
And making sweeping assertions:
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.
It’s in the conclusion that we find Daly’s credo:
I believe that widespread indifference and even hostility toward religion among progressives and Democrats in recent years has helped to reinforce certain trends in our political and legal culture that are equally hostile to the goals of organized labor and, indeed, to the very idea of organized labor.
No small claims, indeed.
Daly supports creating (or re-creating) a “sovereign” role for religious associations that express corporatist or solidarist ideals; he thinks this is the missing middle ground between atomistic, rights-based liberalism and coercive socialism. In his appeal he makes explicit reference to what he takes to be a fresh opening for solidarist energy: the Bush and Obama faith-based initiative programs that relax traditional church-state separation in order to permit delivery of tax-supported social services by overtly sectarian groups. Here is how he describes the faith-based approach:
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.
This new corporatism, Daly believes, echoes and honors the older form:
In corporatist thinking, natural associations—including the family, religious bodies, occupational guilds and trade unions, and various other communal structures—should be legally enfranchised in their corporate nature, empowered as both subjects and creators of public policy, and protected as vital instruments of the common good.
To his credit, Daly acknowledges that in plumping for faith-based initiatives, he is also recycling and promoting ideas from his 2009 book, God’s Economy, which embraced the theory of the Bush initiative.
Holes in the History, Perils in the Prescription
I’m very glad that Daly uncovers the historical currents informing both Catholic social thought and U.S. labor history. I join him in wishing that more people knew about the work of moral theologian John Ryan, for example, and I admire Daly’s capacious and shrewd critique of the intertwining of free-market liberalism/Social Darwinism and ur-Protestant ideas about individual responsibility and resistance to collective action. All of that material is well presented by a supple and powerful writer.
That said, I am puzzled by the omission of any mention of noted Reformed pastor/theologian (and early 20th-century Netherlands prime minister) Abraham Kuyper, whose ideas and policies regarding “sphere sovereignty” or “pillarization” (verzuiling) exerted a large if little-known influence on certain architects of Bush’s faith-based program. Maybe it’s just my own alertness to all things Netherlandish, but I thought it was passing strange for Daly to overlook such a towering figure as Kuyper.
Speaking of Protestants, Daly might at least have provided us with a footnote about the many U.S. Protestant figures who lent as much or more support to the labor theory of value than their Catholic counterparts. I’m thinking of leaders like firebrand Congregationalist minister George D. Herron, who nominated Eugene V. Debs as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1904, and whose lively sermons are quoted in Jackson Lears’ magisterial Rebirth of a Nation.
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