Labor and the Church-State Wall: A Response to Lew Daly

The hard road facing unions and unionism has many causes. But the traditional American commitment to church-state separation is not what doomed the labor movement—and abandoning church-state separation will hardly save it.

By Peter Laarman

Tagged Church and StateLabor

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter here.

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.

My guess is that it’s rather inconvenient for Daly to bring in examples of strong labor supporters who were (or are) also strong First Amendment devotees: rights liberals. It kind of wrecks his thesis about there being a big gulf fixed between rights liberalism and ultimate support for union power. Perhaps this is why he also fails to mention the extremely important labor rights affirmations within the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a supreme achievement of “rights liberals,” led by Eleanor Roosevelt.

A much more serious omission, in my view, is any reference to certain odious figures—e.g., Charles Maurras and Jean-Marie Le Pen—who (one might say) went all the way with their corporatism. Forever associated with the Dreyfus affair, M. Maurras campaigned for an “integral nationalism” that merged anti-Semitic and anti-Protestant themes. An agnostic himself, Maurras promoted romantic ideas about a Catholic France purged of Enlightenment toxins—and purged of Jews as well. Of M. Le Pen’s contributions to human happiness, no elaboration is necessary.

The biggest historical problem is an apples and oranges issue. Daly appears to believe that were we to just do away with the fusty constitutional barrier, the religious associations and religious organizations that would spring forth to glorious, tax-supported life would be as solidaristic as the ancient church-based models he lauds. But would they? When I look at the faith-based takers of our tax dollars, I’m not seeing a bunch of Franciscans or Discalced Carmelites, I’m seeing social conservatives who are madly in love with laissez-faire economics—with radical individualism in the economic sphere, if not in personal life.

But leave the historical problems aside. My worry is that Daly might succeed in having his historical exhumations lend credence to his personal advocacy of “enfranchisement” or “sovereignty” for faith-based organizations in the contemporary U.S. context. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which confused politicians would assert that their new way of being for organized labor is to be against the First Amendment, all in the name of honoring a religiously-informed solidarism that has long since left the building. This merits a degree of worry because passionate advocates like Lew Daly leave no doubt that by “enfranchisement” for religious groups, they mean upgraded legal status and access to public funds.

Is it really necessary to rehearse the problems with this? Is it necessary to identify the kinds of abuses we get when tax-subsidized religious organizations start denying infidels what should be universally-available public services—firing homosexuals on religious grounds, etc.? More to the point, what exactly does pulverizing the Wall of Separation have to do with bolstering trade unionism at this late date?

The essential fact Daly affirms is that trade unions do enjoy a unique legal status in the United States. Old-school Catholic solidarism most certainly played a part in providing sanction and legitimation for securing that special status, but it is hardly necessary for anyone wanting to fight for labor rights and for the dignity of workers today to buy into Daly’s whole libertas ecclesiae shtick. Not only is it not necessary: it is a wildly circuitous and highly dangerous route to take.

Are some rights-based liberals unfriendly to unions and union culture? No doubt. Are these liberals as dangerous to unions and union culture as wealth-based conservatives? I don’t think so. Are they as dangerous to unions and union culture as faith-based conservatives? Not a chance.

As Daly acknowledges, the hard road facing unions and unionism has many causes. But the traditional American commitment to church-state separation is not what doomed the labor movement—and abandoning church-state separation will hardly save it.

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Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles.

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