Against a backdrop of declining union membership and increasing neglect of labor’s concerns in Washington, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent campaign to repeal collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees had the feeling of an endgame being set in motion. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson contemplated the Wisconsin standoff in a long-term trajectory—from “Big Labor” to “Little Labor,” and now to “Mini Labor,” as the last remaining union strongholds in the public sector came under fire. Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute matter-of-factly urged Walker and other governors to go further and eliminate collective bargaining entirely for all state and local workers. Twenty-five states already limit public employee bargaining, in whole or in part. The rallies that erupted in Madison give a sense of the anger and desperation among union members and supporters. Many labor analysts describe an “existential crisis” in the movement.
Still more is at stake when you consider Wisconsin’s history. Wisconsin was the birthplace of much of what became the New Deal, as well as mainstream social and labor policy thereafter. Workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance were first enacted in Wisconsin. The state was home to both Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer, the “founding fathers” of Social Security. And yes, Wisconsin, in 1959, was the first state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees.
Less well known but no less important is Wisconsin’s (and neighboring Minnesota’s) legacy of religious, particularly Roman Catholic, social teaching. The religious concept of the “just wage,” a rights-based alternative to prevailing free-market wage theories, was developed and applied by unsung Upper Midwestern heroes of the New Deal such as Fathers John Ryan and Francis Haas. Key Catholic political ideas such as solidarity and subsidiarity helped to legitimize and frame collective bargaining rights and social welfare policy, while bringing a new moral urgency to government action on such reforms. In combination with overwhelming Catholic electoral support for the Democratic Party in the 1930s, such ideas had a significant impact not only on the development of New Deal policy but on the New Deal’s popularity among religious leaders and religious communities as well.
The longer view, of course, is increasingly clouded. In a national context where collective bargaining has steadily declined over six decades to cover only a small fraction of the workforce, the battle of Wisconsin might better be described as something of an anti-climax. Looking ahead into a future in which preventing further declines will be difficult and even moderate union growth seems unlikely, perhaps there are other questions we need to be asking, and new ways of thinking about what is happening to working families in the United States. Surprisingly, the most illuminating starting point for such new thinking may be the New Deal’s religious heritage.
Today’s labor struggles suggest that these religious ideas helped to expose, more than resolve, profound tensions in American liberalism around labor issues generally and the place of unions in particular. It is for this very reason, however, that they are important for new thinking about the decline of collective bargaining, if not for reviving it in the future. While such a notion may strike many progressives as odd if not dangerous, 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. This is the little-told part of the story of labor’s decline—how the very same liberalism that has separated church and state and strengthened individual rights on social issues such as gay marriage has helped to undermine collective rights in the economy.
Among the many aspects of social organization that make the United States different from Europe—from higher rates of poverty and incarceration, to growing economic inequality, to higher religiosity by most measures—low collective bargaining rates may be the most striking. At its historical peak in the early 1950s, the rate of collective bargaining coverage in the United States was less than half of the European average today. (Collective bargaining rates, here, refer to the coverage rate among workers who are eligible for collective bargaining—approximately 75 percent of the U.S. workforce. Collective bargaining “coverage,” of course, is not always the equivalent of union membership; some countries, most notably France, have low union density but high collective bargaining coverage because union agreements are extended to non-union workers through various mechanisms.)
Some snapshots: In 1960, collective bargaining coverage in the United States was at 29 percent. In Germany it was 90 percent, in Finland it was 95 percent, and in the Netherlands it was 100 percent of the eligible workforce. In Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, and even Australia, it was above 70 percent. Between 1960 and 1999, U.S. collective bargaining coverage declined to 15 percent, while in most European countries there was little or no change. In fact, in Austria, Belgium, France, and Sweden, collective bargaining rates actually rose over the same period. Although the 2000s saw some cracks emerge in Europe’s collective bargaining armor, average rates among wealthy democracies in Europe remain above 70 percent, while the U.S. rate has declined to around 13 percent total and less than 8 percent in the private sector. Union membership is at about 12 percent of the total paid workforce. To put this in perspective, the Knights of Labor, among the first national labor organizations in the United States, succeeded in organizing between 8 and 12 percent of the industrial workforce—more than 120 years ago.
There are many theories, often overlapping, about the causes of collective bargaining’s weakness in America. Some highlight specific institutional patterns like the very late arrival of mass unionism. Other causes identified by scholars include comparatively intense employer resistance and hostility toward unions in the courts; still other approaches place more of an emphasis on deficiencies within the labor movement—from corruption, to neglect of organizing, to a focus on “bread and butter” bargaining that left workers exposed to radical restructurings of production (outsourcing, automation, plant relocation, etc.).
More political approaches emphasize the notion that ethnic and religious bonds have trumped class identification in U.S. political party development, rendering labor unable to find an ideologically consistent place in the political system. Still other theories emphasize deeper causes such as a culture of extreme individualism rooted in our origins as a settler society.
The most interesting work on organized labor in recent years has been carried out in the fields of comparative law and political development, where American resistance to collective bargaining has been a major focus. Here, legal scholars such as Thomas Kohler, Michael Wachter, and Reinhold Fahlbeck have examined collective bargaining and economic policy in the United States through the lens of comparative legal traditions. Much of this new work traces the continuing decline of collective bargaining to conflicting legal cultures—what Fahlbeck describes as the “un-American character of American labor law” and Kohler calls its Catholic “secret history.”
Collective Bargaining and Corporatism
Common to all these analyses, to one degree or another, is the view that labor unions are essentially “corporatist” institutions. Corporatism arose in nineteenth-century Europe in reaction to the French Revolution—first responding to the rise of classical liberalism, with its faith in market individualism and a minimal “night watchman” state, and then offering an alternative to socialism and its belief in economic planning through an all-powerful, centralized state. As the Anglican historian J.N. Figgis wrote, corporatism—in contrast to both individualism and statism—sees “the facts of the world with its innumerable bonds of association and the naturalness of social authority,” and this social reality, he argued, should “become the basis of our laws, as it is of life.”
In the United States, the term corporatism refers narrowly (when it is used at all) to business corporations and (often) a sense of their undue influence in politics. But corporatism in Figgis’s sense refers to a much broader political tradition reaching back to the Christian idea of the Church as a corpus mysticum, or mystical body of Christ. The idea of a mystical body, a group of persons who are united by a common spiritual identity and purpose, evolved, often in conflict with political authority, into a broader juridical tradition of freedom of association and sovereignty within the state. Corporatism aligns with this juridical tradition, adding a strong component of coordination for the common good.
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. Corporatism addresses issues as fundamental as family formation and faith-based social services, and as a heritage of the guild system, it was also a source of modern labor law and industrial policy.
Corporatism plainly does not conform to America’s comparatively ultra-liberal legal and policy tradition, in which individual contractual liberty is the paramount ordering principle. Michael Wachter, in a notable 2007 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, argued that the fundamental difference is between a system in which wages and household welfare are excluded from market competition (corporatism), and one in which wages and household welfare are subjected to market competition (economic liberalism). Essentially, modern corporatism seeks to preserve social cohesion and promote the common welfare by establishing bargaining, policy, and regulatory frameworks that insulate key social structures and relations from market forces.
Corporatism was one of three basic pathways of state development in Europe—alongside liberalism and socialism. Liberalism, characterized by less intervention in markets and lower social spending, has been dominant in the Anglophone countries; socialism has been dominant in Scandinavia, marked by social-democratic parties, significant intervention in markets, and higher social spending; and corporatism, often described as a “third way” between liberalism and socialism, has been influential or dominant in Central and Southern Europe—and is characterized by Christian Democratic parties, significant economic coordination through legal empowerment of societal groups, and moderate social spending oriented around the family. The impact of corporatism is seen most clearly in the systems of “co-determination” in many European countries. First ratified in Germany under the Christian Democrats in the 1950s, co-determination gives representatives of labor a formal role in decision-making at the shop floor level, the firm level, and in some cases the sectoral level. The spread of co-determination in other parts of Europe has also drawn on radical republican and socialist ideas about democratizing the economy.
The United States has generally had only two pathways: extreme free-market liberalism on the one hand, and a more statist “progressive” liberalism on the other (often termed “socialism” by right-wing commentators). Yet, as the new work in comparative law has illuminated, there have been exceptions in U.S. policy history, with particular relevance for collective bargaining. The most prominent exception, of course, is the early New Deal—a “corporatist economic policy,” Wachter argues, launched under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (more on this below). Here, collective bargaining rights were made a pillar of national recovery along with business codes designed to insulate labor from ruinous competition.
The Roots of Corporatism in Labor and Religion
To grasp the “un-American” character of collective bargaining and why this is relevant today, it is important to understand the historical roots of corporatism and how such thinking developed. Essentially, corporatism arose in reaction to the spread of free-market liberalism and the sharpening crisis of poverty and inequality that engulfed the industrialized world by the end of the nineteenth century. The corporatist response diagnosed the nineteenth-century crisis as a social crisis, with roots in the French Revolution’s ideology of individual liberty and absolute property rights. The corporatists feared that the revolution would go beyond the obvious attacks on aristocracy and the “vestiges of feudalism” to embrace a more radical vision of democracy in which all other orders of lawful existence outside of the selfhood and property of individual citizens would be dissolved.
By the early 1790s, France’s revolutionary Constituent Assembly had issued decrees against the religious orders and passed laws abolishing trade unions and other social bodies, pressing further and further into the corporate and communal structures of religion, work, and family life. In this context, labor associations and religious associations were similarly excluded from the law and denied communal sovereignty in their respective realms of work and spiritual development. As Jean Le Chapelier, author of the ban on trade unions, put it, “Free conventions between individual and individual” would take their place. So, too, communal forms of property connected to such structures were also either absorbed or dissolved by the state. As historian William Sewell concludes, “only absolute individual property survived the Revolution, and this pared-down and purified form of property was placed in a new and much more central place in the social order.”
Radical liberalism challenged associational life in the United States as well. In the name of protecting “contractual liberty” or an employer’s “property” in unimpeded commerce, collective bargaining was resisted for more than a century. Under the common law, workers’ organizations were treated as “conspiracies.” “At issue throughout,” legal historian Christopher Tomlins writes in The State and the Unions, “was the status of associations of workers in a republic increasingly dominated by the entrepreneurial interpretation of the meaning of the Revolution.” Worker combinations were not only injurious to commerce, opponents argued, but because they were designed to empower workers in their contractual relations with employers, they threatened the very survival of republican government based on the law of property and contractual freedom. In addition to conspiracy doctrine, federal labor injunctions and anti-trust laws further held back organized labor.
Religious associations, too, had to struggle for legal and public standing in the United States, in some ways even more enduringly. Catholic schools, of course, were among the most embattled institutions in state law and party politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (not coincidentally, Catholics have also been predominant in trade union membership); and in contrast with many corporatist or partially corporatist countries (most notably Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands), religious schools and faith-based social agencies in the United States have often been barred from or faced stringent limitations in accessing public benefit programs and funding. More recently, faith-based institutions have been challenged by health laws and gay rights legislation that, in some cases, limit or prohibit exemptions based on religious principles.
The Catholic Sources of the New Deal
Understanding the Catholic influence on the New Deal within this broader corporatist tradition helps us not merely to grasp the decline of collective bargaining, but also to chart a path forward. The Church’s influence on ideas about labor can be traced to the late nineteenth century. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the Church’s first “social encyclical,” Rerum Novarum, which ushered in a major sea change in labor and social rights. Grounded in a revival of Thomistic natural law thinking, Rerum Novarum gave moral sanction to trade unions, social assistance for the poor, and critical concepts such as the just wage, the dangers of concentrated wealth, the social obligations of ownership, and even worker ownership.
American Catholic thinkers influenced by Leo emerged as a distinctive presence in public life in the decade before World War I. The most important was the moral theologian and social reformer John A. Ryan. Born in Vermillion, Minnesota, Ryan was a product of the Upper Midwest’s distinctive tradition of social Catholicism and a convert to Populism in the 1890s. Ryan’s most important contributions focused on the problem of the just wage as distinct from the market wage. Ryan also authored the American Church’s Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction, issued in 1919. The program demanded a legal minimum wage, public housing for workers, and social insurance for illness, disability, unemployment, and old age, and called for labor participation in industrial management. Widely promoted by Church agencies and in the progressive and labor press, the program was arguably the most important official act of the American Church in its history to that point, and in the years to come it would remain a major touchstone both in the development of social policy and in the consolidation of Catholic loyalty to the Democratic Party.
An important common thread in these developments was the philosophy of “solidarism,” arguably the most distinctive Catholic variant of corporatist thinking. According to solidarism, liberal economics (in the classical sense) had a mistaken view of human nature and purpose, giving rise to the reactionary political idea that state intervention in the economy—taxation, social programs, industrial policy—is unnaturally coercive if not criminal. A more socially integrated view of human nature, in contrast, casts many forms of public action in a positive moral light and rebalances individual rights with social needs. Along with the theory of the just wage, solidarism’s main contribution was to provide a moral framework for industrial policy. Always at the root of solidarist policy ideas was the view that human moral equality and interdependence, not competition, is the natural order of society and the proper—God-given—standard for constructing economic life.
The solidarist current in Catholic social teaching culminated in Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, published on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Subtitled “On Reconstruction of the Social Order,” Quadragesimo Anno proposed the establishment of a corporatist industrial order built around occupational councils including industry and labor representatives. Charged with negotiating fair wages, hours, prices, and business practices, the councils would replace pure market forces with mandatory bargaining. (The encyclical also contained specific criticism of top-down statist corporatism—although that did not stop authoritarian regimes in Austria, Spain, and Portugal from using it as a model for state-controlled corporatist experiments.)
Solidarism played a role in helping organized labor in the United States. In a 1932 speech titled “The Philosophy of Social Justice through Social Action,” Franklin Roosevelt, on the presidential campaign trail in Detroit, quoted at length from Quadragesimo Anno in describing the challenges that lay ahead. His first major New Deal program, under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), was viewed by many (certainly by many Catholics) as an enactment of the corporatist vision put forward by Pius XI. Title I of the act authorized the development of sectoral business codes for setting wages, hours, bargaining rules, and fair business practices. John Ryan drew attention to the similarities between the NIRA and Quadragesimo Anno’s solidarist “occupational group system.”
The most controversial feature of the NIRA was undoubtedly the famous Section 7(a) on collective bargaining, reading simply, “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents.” Hailed by AFL president William Green as the “Magna Carta of Labor,” Section 7(a) extended provisions on organizing rights developed over the previous decade, with an emphasis, Tomlins argues, “on protecting [workers’] freedom to engage in economic conflicts to vindicate” these rights. The NIRA effectively dispensed with the idea of employers’ rights to interfere in organized labor, thereby providing not simply for the legal existence of unions, but for their encouragement, integrity, protection—and, in principle, their power. It was here, in providing state protection for trade unions and their bargaining power in a context of broader industrial policy, that the early New Deal assumed a distinctive corporatist cast and one that particularly attracted religious support by prioritizing the needs of labor.
But the corporatist cast of collective bargaining rights began to erode already within the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (better known as the Wagner Act) developed a framework for the enforcement of collective bargaining rights as introduced by the NIRA, spurred in part by the Supreme Court’s overturning of the NIRA earlier that year. But while the Wagner Act had some much-debated weaknesses—not least the exclusion of many workers from coverage by the law—the deeper vulnerability of collective bargaining came with the demise of any concerted industrial policy around it. In contrast to the corporatist NIRA, which coordinated collective bargaining rights with anti-competitive cooperation on prices, wages, and hours, the Wagner Act, as Wachter points out, was a “labor-only policy since there was no ancillary, supporting legislation in other areas of industrial policy.” By definition, corporatist provisions like collective bargaining rights cannot stand alone in an otherwise unrestricted free market. Indeed, even as unions won higher wages for their members, the increasingly deregulated marketplace was driving down prices and putting more and more pressure on wages, pushing collective bargaining into decline.
Legal and policy changes such as the Mackay doctrine (allowing firms to hire replacement workers during a strike) and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 (prohibiting, among other things, union boycotts and other secondary actions to help striking workers at another business) shrank the parameters of solidarity in the labor marketplace. These changes gave momentum to the general demise of collective bargaining beginning in the mid-1950s, as any vestiges of early New Deal (and wartime) corporatism were, Wachter writes, “gradually replaced with an economic policy that had one primary theme—that the country is best served by a competitive economy,” in which “nothing of importance is taken out of competition, certainly not labor costs.”
Collective Bargaining and Religion
At its peak, collective bargaining in America covered about a third of the workforce. But the larger story, partly illuminated by Catholic influence on New Deal policy, is that collective bargaining was never really at home in the United States. From the Constitution’s silence on the existence and rights of families and groups, to the labor-conspiracy legacy in American common law, to the waves of political and often violent repression that engulfed labor’s efforts in the decades after the Civil War, to the Supreme Court’s Lochner-era barriers to labor legislation, no legal system or political culture in the industrialized world was more hostile to organized labor and its collective power.
The early New Deal gave momentum to collective bargaining rights in their strongest form to date, but as Kohler points out, this was an exception: It is “the only place in our highly individualistically oriented legal system where the law seeks to protect and enhance the status of the individual through the formation and maintenance of freely-formed and autonomous associations.” Thus it was not a genuine legal transformation so much as an isolated shift—a point one can trace in the decades that followed as the hostility to unions and workers became less acute but more insidious and effective.
Sharply diverging from U.S. trends, valuing labor over other economic factors has been a mainstay of Catholic social teaching, and the emphasis on labor has continued to grow. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.” It is a poignant irony that the Church’s major statement on the priority of labor was released just a few weeks after Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and crushed the PATCO union—his “most important domestic initiative,” Alan Greenspan would later argue, emphasizing how Reagan’s actions emboldened employers in a new wave of aggressive anti-union strategies. (But no less poignant, just a few weeks after the release of Laborem Exercens, Solidarity held its first national congress, electing Lech Walesa president, and soon counted more than 80 percent of Poland’s industrial workforce as members.)
As we consider these disturbing contrasts, the remaining question, of course, is where to begin if we want to challenge, and not simply dissect, the decline of collective bargaining in the United States. More organizing to expand union membership? Of course. More enforcement of organizing rights and labor law? It would be about time. New industrial policy to create and protect good jobs in our communities? Yes, finally. But as I’ve suggested, the deficits in these areas reflect deeper problems in our legal and political culture, likely with no immediate remedies at hand. And this brings us back, ultimately, to the question of religion.
The twist at the end of this story is that collective bargaining is, ultimately, a victim not just of America’s right-leaning politics and market liberalism, but of America’s pervasive institutional and legal secularism—our so-called “wall of separation” between church and state. Contrary to the mythology of American religious exceptionalism, no democratic country (not even France, at least in some key respects) has been more extreme in its policing of the church-state divide and its privatization of religious faith, and at the same time none has been more hostile to the collective rights of labor and labor’s dignity in a religious sense. It is no coincidence that the country with the strictest separation of church and state also has the lowest collective bargaining rates. In the United States, religious bodies were increasingly excluded from public life even as collective bargaining, as a public right, went into terminal decline.
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.
Religious bodies and organized labor share many common features of identity, mission, and purpose, and share equally in the development of ideas of solidarity and their enduring appeal. In different times and places they also shared in a struggle for rights of association and a legitimate, protected place in public law. The notable correlation between church-state integration and collective bargaining strength in Europe often reflects specific political alignments of religious and labor institutions; Christian political parties and associations, of course, have played an important role in any number of highly unionized countries. To cite just one example, German Catholics helped to establish co-determination—the idea that workers have a say in the management of the companies they work for—when, at their national congress in 1949, drawing 500,000 people, they passed a resolution declaring such policies “a natural law in a divinely willed order.”
Thus in Europe did public religion and collective bargaining evolve together from a common—corporatist—legal tradition and political culture. What we need to understand is how the lack of such a tradition greatly weakened collective bargaining in the United States. One could extend this line of inquiry further, examining, for example, the no less striking absence of any family policy tradition in the United States. In the final analysis, it is easy to see how the “corporative” dimensions of society—family, labor, and religion—have been perpetually obscured in America’s extreme brand of liberalism, and it is important to consider how the very same liberalism that has strengthened individual rights in society may have helped to undermine collective rights in the economy.
A Faith-Based Future?
But if the failings of law and policy in these three dimensions have a common source, we should not underestimate the potential for coordinating family, labor, and religion in a newfound solidarity and a new common path beyond today’s political divides. For one thing, it is striking that collective bargaining law is not, in fact, the only corporatist tradition to find a place, however briefly, in American policy history. There was another example, just in the last decade: the faith-based initiative.
As I’ve described at length in my 2009 book God’s Economy, the faith-based initiative launched by George W. Bush in 2001 was essentially an effort to give public authority and support to autonomous religious bodies in the service of a statutory public purpose (social assistance and serving the poor). Previously, under America’s strict separation of church and state, religious social-service providers had to pay a high price of secularization when contracting with the government to provide social services. Public support was given not on their terms but on the government’s terms.
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.