Author: Chuck Rawlings
Date: September 5, 2017
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Labor Day’s Inequality Flood and the Roots of Authoritarianism

chuck rawlings

Author Chuck Rawlings

On this Labor Day 2017, the question for faith communities is whether we can own our share of responsibility for today’s rising inequality and authoritarianism. Flooded Houston, the epicenter of a fossil fuels empire that accrued enormous wealth by turning land into unlimited concrete for profitable development, is now the scene of immeasurable human catastrophe. As with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the disaster in Houston pulls back the curtain on a city whose people live on the margins of the empire of oil. 

Houston ranks as the 15th most unequal city among the nation’s 50 largest, according to the Brookings Institute. On April 7th, 2016, the Houston Chronicle reported:

The richest 5 percent of households here earn nearly 12 times more than the poorest 20 percent. About 156,000 of the city’s households have an income under $18,759.

Public policy about income inequality in the U. S. persistently avoids such realities. The state government in Missouri is cutting back minimum wage increases approved by St. Louis city voters. New Trump tax policies, announced four days ahead of Labor Day, prescribe “reforms” that primarily help the rich and add to the national debt.  The real “wall” supported by big money players is their strategic investment in primary elections that look toward the mid-terms of 2018. Their clear purpose seems not to be improve wages and working conditions, but to continue to warp the economy in favor of their peers at the top of the income pyramid: the top 1 to 5 percent.

A positive alternative strategy from faith communities concerned with the common good will require unprecedented commitment to new interfaith formations and theologically meaningful alliances with secular organizations who share a high moral purpose: to meet the needs of the common good. (These are Bonhoeffer’s “saints without god.”)

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How religion and endemic inequality have come to share the same boat in America is not a pretty story, and begins with the slave economy.
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How religion and endemic inequality have come to share the same boat in America is not a pretty story, and begins with the slave economy that built the first several hundred years of the very “Christian” Americas; a continent whose conquerors were comfortable with the normative belief  that human nature was a biologically determined hierarchy.  

Even at the founding of the U. S., although the redoubtable Alexander Hamilton detested slavery, he still believed human nature was a natural class hierarchy and fitted it to his vision for the nation.  Correcting the picture portrayed in the musical, “Hamilton,” Cornell  political historians Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick describe a Hamilton who loathed “the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary era in which he lived…[he]clearly envisioned the greatness of a future empire enabled by drastic inequalities of wealth and power.” (NY Times 6/20/16)

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 drew attention to one example of intolerable work conditions.  Most of those who perished were immigrant women.

While the new Constitution (although it was designed mostly by slave owners) was less extreme, there was a dominant belief in an elitism of “nature” that was held almost universally until after the mid 20th century  and was applied in the Protestant imprint on U. S. culture that made second class citizens of millions of Catholic and Jewish workers brought to America to work for the “biologically superior” first class white, Protestant owners of the thriving steel mills, factories and mines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Such superiority of religious identity made for 90 hour work weeks, child labor, and 12 hour days in “sweatshops” employing immigrant women seem “legitimate” expressions of the Christian righteousness of owners of wealth and power.   

It’s doubtful if any of today’s Silicon Valley-style masters of the universe hold such ideological views of human nature, but their instinctive decisions suggest they remain children born of the same mold. The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality In the U. S. reports that in 2016 the U. S. top one percent own 41.8 percent of the wealth.   The pre-eminent economists and political science researchers, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, reported that at the close of 2016 the bottom half of the country had been shut out from income growth for the last 40 years.

The average pre-tax earnings of an American in the bottom 50 percent by income was $16,197 in 2014, a nearly invisible 2.6 percent gain over 40 years. Over the same period, the top 10 percent of Americans saw their pretax incomes grow by 231 percent.

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The gains of a century of struggle for equity for miners and factory workers have now been put into reverse gear, bringing us to a moment when only one in ten workers belong to unions compared with 30 percent of the labor force being unionized forty years ago.
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The consequences of this staggering inequality shape our Labor Day 2017 realities and underlie the nation’s current vulnerability to bizarre expressions of power, such as the Constitutional crisis that could occur if the President, any President, manages to suspend the power of courts by exercising without restraint the power to pardon those whom a court has judged guilty.

Such chaotic consequences  are all in the category of cause and effect, and flow from the consequence of millions of manufacturing jobs and new economy high tech jobs exported to offshore locations like China and South Korea over the past 40 years; this has the further consequence of placing  downward pressure on U. S. workers’ wages and benefits, leading in turn to an explosion of contingent work (contract) jobs that offer almost no benefits like a pension, health insurance or guaranteed job security.  Forbes Magazine estimates that forty percent of today’s workforce are independent contract workers. This third consequence has now mutated through career ranges that run from truck and Uber drivers to programmers and highly skilled technicians.  

The net effect is that the gains of a century of struggle for equity for miners and factory workers have now been put into reverse gear, bringing us to a moment when only one in ten workers belong to unions compared with 30 percent of the labor force being unionized forty years ago.  Worse are anecdotal reports that the pressure on today’s contingent private contractors is pushing many of them back to the 90 hour work weeks of the 1890’s and 1900’s.

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Religion in America, in spite of the good it does, has internalized  the racism and classism that defines the basic shape of American life and underlies today’s rising threat of authoritarianism.
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The tragic system of racism and religious-based classism handicaps the potential today of people of faith to join together to counter the rise of authoritarians. Racism forced Black churches to exist separately. The ownership and managerial classes that built the tall steeple Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational edifices locked denominations into a sociology of segregation and inequality visible in the suburbs of most American towns and cities.  In addition, the fateful pattern of church-based class division developed from the same inequality that now divides Houston and the rest of the U. S. People, then and now, who worked mostly with their hands and backs could not be comfortable in churches where their bosses were sitting. This discomfort was reciprocated by the managers of the dominating class.  Workers attended “other” churches: Baptist, Church of God, Adventists.  Catholics and Jews lived a world apart in liturgies and traditions foreign to and unknown to the wealthier Protestant world. In other words religion in America, in spite of the good it does, has internalized  the racism and classism that defines the basic shape of American life and underlies today’s rising threat of authoritarianism.

There are better angels in this history.  The 19th Century glory of the churches (before they were cemented into their respective sociological strata) was their battle against slavery through the Abolitionist Movement. The 20th Century glory of the churches was the Social Gospel preached against the outrages of capitalism that exploited women and children and created vast urban slums filled with sweat shops.  Christian and Jewish socialist movements were early twentieth century forces in the U. S. advocating for workers to form worker circles and partnerships that grew to become unions. It still required decades for church leaders like Walter Rauschenbusch to convince at least some Protestant groups that the teachings of Jesus and socialism had many values in common. The two Roosevelts played respective roles in the first forty years of this Progressive Movement that reflected a coalition between religion and secular humanitarians such as Jane Addams at Chicago’s Hull house.  This reform era created major workplace and public health reforms (Teddy) and supporting the lawful right of unionization (FDR).

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The deep wound that now exists among an abandoned workforce makes them vulnerable to the pied pipers of the Trump era and the winners in the digital economy.   
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The tragedies of the 20th Century interrupted this momentum. The Soviet Communist Revolution put the Capitalist era on high alert and gave corporate owners an excuse to resist collective organizing and limit the power of unions to organize.  World War II became a cauldron from which the shape of today’s global-wide inequality grew. The deep wound that now exists among an abandoned workforce makes them vulnerable to the pied pipers of the Trump era and the winners in the digital economy.   

But there is good news! A new glory is on the rise this Labor Day in the form of Moral Monday movements, growing Industrial Areas Foundation organizations, PICO National Networks and other non-denominational movements for justice that are being born in the empty public space created by the insularity of traditional churches and synagogues.  The younger generations care little about the needlessly segregated life of congregations; they’ve moved on and mostly outside organized religious life.

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What we do, not what we say, will define belief.
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In the coming weeks many chickens will be coming home to roost, beginning with the incalculable and unanticipated costs of the Houston inundation. The Congressional budget wars immediately ahead will become struggles between the haves and have nots with the have nots pushed to the back of economic priorities. The new interfaith “religion of community,” demanding unity without racism and committed to equity for all, will be severely tested, as will the Sanders-style spirit of progressive policy reform.  

Labor Day 2017 means everyone is a teacher, everyone an organizer; all hands on deck! What we do, not what we say, will define belief.

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AUTHOR BIO:  Rev. Chuck Rawlings is chairperson of the Peace and Justice Task Force of San Jose Presbytery. He writes a weekly blog, “Public liturgies,” linking social policy analysis and theological reflection, which can be accessed at http://publicliturgies.blogspot.com/. Three projects have been central to his work over many years including researching the impact of globalization on wages and benefits of workers in the U. S. and around the world; seeking ways to create community/worker ownership of manufacturing in cities like Youngstown and Detroit where disinvestment substantially destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people; and liberating communities from the scourge of racism. He served as Coordinator for Urban Programs at the National Council of Churches in the 1990s and in the 80s as executive director of the New Jersey Council of Churches.

In his younger years, Chuck was a pastor in Cleveland’s inner city and coordinated the Ecumenical Office of Religion and Race, helping the churches join in the Civil Rights Movement. He has been active in the anti-war movement, the Central American human rights and sanctuary movement, and the struggle for Palestinian liberation from the Israeli Occupation. 

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