Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The new social gospel

Steven Malanga has an interesting article about the rise of the religious left, particularly in conjunction with unions to argue against the free market and for the redistribution of wealth.
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.
And not by coincidence, the causes that these new religious leaders espouse match up perfectly with the causes of organized labor.
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.
In this new gospel, the sinners are Wal-Mart and those who believe in free enterprise.
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.
Religious leaders have often taken the lead in reform movements in American history from Second Great Awakening ministers preaching against slavery to Social Gospel ministers preaching a religious basis for the progressive movement civil rights leaders using the pulpits to organize bus boycotts. Personally, I don't mind such religious leaders advocating what they believe in. It is up to their congregations to see if this is the sort of message they want to hear from the pulpit. But I hope that we will stop hearing criticism of ministers who believe differently and want to support conservative policies and politicians from their pulpits. If no one follows these religious leaders they will lose their congregations and influence. It's a free market for people to find the religious style that fits their own beliefs. And if people decide that they prefer their congregations not to be politicized they will eschew such sermons from the pulpits.