Monday, November 5, 2007

the rise of the Religious Left?

from Steven Malanga in City Journal (hat tip: WSJ, but their full article is only an excerpt of the original and is only available to subscribers)

Everyone knows that the Christian Right is a potent force in American politics. But since the mid-nineties, an increasingly influential religious movement has arisen on the left, mostly escaping the national press’s notice. The movement expends its political energies not on the cultural concerns that primarily motivate conservative evangelicals, but instead on an array of labor and economic issues.

Working mostly at the state and local level, and often in lockstep with unions, the ministers, priests, rabbis, and laity of this new Religious Left have lent their moral authority to a variety of left-wing causes, exerting 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, among other struggles. Indeed, the movement’s effectiveness has made it one of organized labor’s most reliable allies.

The RL has some clout-- and it has increased somewhat over the last decade. But they seem to be organizing existing activists for the most part-- whereas the RR has energized citizens from apathy and organized the disorganized (moreso).

Moreover, the RL has been active for some time. I remember my brother sending me Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger-- a book which, especially in its earlier and more popular editions, was brutal in terms of public policy analysis, theology, and biblical hermeneutics (interpretative methods) and remarkably inconsistent. The result: proper concern for issues of economic justice, but policy remedies that were biblically unethical, impractical, or both.

From there, Malanga looks back further in time to the older roots of the RL. A brief intro/excerpt:

The new Religious Left is in one sense not new at all. It draws its inspiration from the Christian social-justice movement that formed in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to the emerging industrial economy, which many religious leaders viewed—with some justification—as brutal and unfair to workers....

Here's a nice quote from Father Sirico at the Acton Institute-- an organization that has done much to combat policy and biblical ignorance in this arena...

“Younger seminarians may be particularly receptive to such experiences,” suggests Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, which tries to educate religious leaders on the compatibility of free-market principles with Christian beliefs. “Seminarians are preaching all the time,” he adds, “and if they don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.”

Malanga then writes at length about various forms of activism, especially in the economic realm (although the RL'ers have also been quite busy with respect to environmentalism)...

Religious Left leaders have blindly accepted all that the unions claim about corporate America’s sins....The Religious Left also refuses 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. In editorials, the Reverend Rebekah Jordan, a Methodist minister who heads Memphis’s local interfaith group, used union-sponsored research to argue that living-wage laws benefit workers and do little harm to employment rates. But David Neumark, 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....

Those are examples where government policy inadvertently does harm to some of the poor. Malanga closes by taking a few pokes at welfare and poverty-- an area where the government tries to help and the results are a mixed bag.

Further, the leftist clerics ignore mounting evidence that much poverty in prosperous, opportunity-rich America results not from a failed economic system but from dysfunctional—dare one call it “sinful”?—behavior. Around two-thirds of poor families with children today are single-parent households, largely dependent on government subsidies. Single women with little education head most of these households. The kind of work for which these mothers are qualified—entry-level, low-wage—makes it hard to support large families; and the time that they must devote to raising their kids makes it hard, in turn, to climb the economic ladder.

Poverty, in other words, is increasingly about the irresponsible decision—again, we might once have called it sinful—to have children out of wedlock. In a recent study on American poverty highlighted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists from the University of California at Davis found that “changes in family structure—notably a doubling of the percent of families headed by a single woman—can account for a 3.7 percentage point increase in poverty rates, more than the entire rise in the poverty rate from 10.7 percent to 12.8 percent since 1980.”

By contrast, observes Catholic neoconservative writer Michael Novak, research demonstrates that the way out of poverty for most Americans is to make a few simple life choices. “Some 97 percent of those who complete high school, stay married (even if not on the first try), and work full-time year-round (even at the minimum wage) are not poor,” Novak points out. “Nearly all poverty in the United States is associated with the absence of one or more of these three basic accomplishments”—not with insufficient social spending or a lack of economic opportunity.

To generalize, the RL'ers pursue important policy goals within a coherent biblical worldview, but their embrace of govt as a means to godly ends is usually unbiblical and impractical. Beyond that, they have an optimistic/naive view of human nature and an unfortunate level of idolatry toward govt solutions. The RR has its own (staggering) faults. But that's a topic for another day/post...


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