CHRISTIANITY AND CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS: Searching the Pews for Labor’s Allies

Imagine if the labor movement, inside and outside of unions, looked to theologically conservative Protestants to help rebuild the strength and revitalize the energy of working people throughout the United States. A glance back to the late 1970s is not encouraging. Consider Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and its exuberant claim that it helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. The pain from the crushing of the PATCO strike in the first year of his presidency still throbs. Employing replacement workers during strikes continues to hamstring union power.

A Proposal for the Labor Movement

With labor on the ropes in a troubled economy, it pays to know where allies can be found. Tens of millions of Protestants in the United States hold conservative views of theology and scripture. It is tempting to suppose that this side of the Protestant theological spectrum is monochromatic and that all born-again Christians readily align themselves with the goals of the Christian Right. Resistance to this temptation, however, enables one to make distinctions where they matter, as some of these Protestants are allies of labor. If there is to be a new forum for labor, some conservative Protestants will have to be part of the conversation.

A survey of theologically conservative Protestants gives us insight into the complex terrain of this dynamic aspect of American Protestantism and a context for venturing into one such church, New Covenant Christian Community, just minutes from the long shadows of Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces in Pennsylvania. Interviews with parishioners there comprise one part of a larger project to investigate how working-class Protestants from theologically conservative churches or denominations think about work and work-related power. Most observers do not associate white, theologically conservative Protestant congregants in the United States with being at the forefront of the major social justice initiatives that began at the end of World War II. But theologically conservative Protestants—who treat the Bible as a guide to daily living—have no reason to sit out all social justice struggles and have perspectives worth pondering.

The Varieties of Protestant Experience

Organizations such as Focus on the Family—founded by James Dobson—or Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council do not represent the majority of theologically conservative Protestants who are only active churchgoers. If one separates these Protestants from the religious and political organizations that wish to claim them, another step remains. While many identify as born again, the churches and the denominations in which born-again Christians practice their faith will describe themselves variously as evangelical, fundamentalist, or Pentecostal. Some may even combine these labels. The differences within these broad camps make it exceedingly difficult to provide general accounts of their beliefs and practices—but the distinctions matter greatly to believers. They can also help outsiders make sense of the ways they think about their daily work and the labor movement.

It is useful to begin with evangelicalism because of all the terms used to describe theologically conservative Protestants, it is the oldest, the most inclusive, and the most readily acceptable to the other traditions. The Greek word from the New Testament, euangelion, means the gospel or the good news of the saving work of Jesus. Those who “accept Jesus as personal savior” are “saved” and those who do not need conversion. Even liberal Protestants— such as those who belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—concur on the importance of this concept, while disagreeing on the need for a conversion experience to attain salvation.

Most evangelicals trace their history to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on the encompassing sufficiency of grace, faith, and scripture. Evangelicals are found everywhere within theologically conservative Protestant communities in the United States, and their ranks include whites, African-Americans, Caribbean-born blacks, Asians and Asian-Americans, and Native Americans. Accounts of the vigorous emergence of evangelical Protestants in Hispanic communities will soon fill bookshelves. Evangelical and non-evangelical theologians and historians persist in attempts to make sense of the daunting variety of evangelical faiths and expressions. David Bebbington tries to unite the multi-dimensional world of evangelicalism in his study of the 1846 formation of the Evangelical Alliance, a worldwide gathering of Protestants in London. Based on a founding document of the Alliance, Bebbington points to three major areas of convergence among mid-nineteenth-century evangelicals—the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the need for personal conversion. To this list, he adds “activism”—the imperative that Christians spread the gospel of Jesus’s redemption of humanity from the results of sin.1 The National Association of Evangelicals, a U.S. organization (founded in 1942) that represents forty evangelical denominations, cites his work as a “helpful summary of evangelical distinctives.”2

Fundamentalist Protestants are doctrinally similar to evangelicals. Some might even call themselves evangelical, but would be quick to note that some evangelicals insufficiently distance themselves from liberal Protestants who are too comfortable with science, evolution, and contemporary morality. Fundamentalists believe it necessary to separate oneself from the world, and sometimes from other believers. Pentecostalism and Pentecostal churches are relatively recent in their institutional formations but draw their inspiration from the earliest days of Christianity. As an outgrowth of the Holiness movement of the mid-nineteenth century—which, in turn, came from the Methodist church—Holiness churches focused on conversion followed by personal sanctification (observance of prohibitions on smoking, drinking, watching movies, dancing, and wearing make-up). An emphasis on the simplicity of Christians in New Testament times—along with attention to the Holy Spirit, who is said to have been particularly active in the first century—characterizes this type of believer.3 Pentecostalists trace their origins to the Holy Spirit who came to the followers of Jesus fifty days after his resurrection in a “rush of a violent wind” and in “tongues, as of fire.” Believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues or “other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Pentecostalists still believe the Holy Spirit works in this way and that speaking in tongues can be a sign of one’s sanctification. Many Pentecostals trace their roots to the Azusa Street revivals—which began in 1906 in Los Angeles—and the spirit-filled aftermath of those inspired gatherings.4

Unions Go to Church on Sunday

Any proposal to connect theologically conservative Protestants with the labor movement should account for an easily overlooked detail—in all of their forms, thousands of them are already members of labor unions, and millions more are part of the workforce. The question is whether a person who is theologically conservative and also a union member will make conscious connections between these affiliations. Will there be a seamless blend of these memberships or will they be at odds? When theologians, pastors, and business leaders do pay attention to the workplace it is usually to advocate acquiescence and docility in the name of obedience to Jesus and the command that “we love one another.” But some working-class evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals believe it is possible to love one another and belong to a union.

Dollars and Divinity in the Shadows of Steel

Driving into Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on Route 412 from the east is a labor history lesson on wheels. Just ahead, the rusting blast furnaces hug a bank of the Lehigh River which divides Bethlehem’s south and north sides. On the right, the Sands sign gleams, its custom faux-Arabic font set on an iron ore crane under which one drives to gamble, shop, dine, and be entertained.

Sands Bethworks is a resort complex built on the former iron ore pit within the 126 acres that once served as the site of Bethlehem Steel. Now, one can cool down at the Molten Lounge or at the Coil, another bar in the center of the casino floor—spirited evidence of the “adaptive re-use” of the historic site. Bethlehem Steel’s too-little-too-late gambles to catch up with innovations in steel production did not succeed, and 1995 ushered in the demise of generations of steel production in the area. Lamentations that finance capital involves too much dice throwing finds its perfect incarnation in this city. Bethlehem Steel employed over thirty thousand laborers at its peak.5 Now the decaying remains of the steel mill in the middle of this city (which has a population of seventy-one thousand) give the term “Rust Belt” a more literal meaning.

The rust in the Rust Belt chips away unevenly. Bethlehem has shown its resiliency with its institutions of higher education—such as Lehigh University—and the quaint shops on its historic and picturesque main street lull tourists into forgetting that Bethlehem’s air was once redolent with the pungent smells of production. Bethlehem’s endurance might have something to do with the work ethic forged by the Moravians in 1741 on the banks of the Monocacy Creek. Members of the New Covenant Christian Community—a church that embodies two key traditions described earlier (evangelical and Pentecostal)—meet in a brick art deco building that once housed a bowling alley. While its average weekly attendance approaches five hundred people, it falls well short of being a megachurch (which brings at least two thousand people together). New Covenant is a “mini-mega,” with its casual style and use of screens to project sermon points, praise lyrics, Bible verses, and selfproduced mini-commercials to deliver the weekly announcements.6 Rooted deeply in the tradition of an error-free Bible inspired by God, it is a serious place for committed Christians who seek to get away from the Sands or from the barrenness of their own spiritual lives.

Political tides are fickle but Barack Obama’s decisive 2008 victory over John McCain in Pennsylvania suggests that its days as a swing state could be waning. Such waves do not leave the churches dry and untouched. While New Covenant does not track the political affiliations of its members or attendees, Senior Pastor Jack Groblewski guesses—on the basis of his thirty year ministry there—that the church is 65 percent Republican and 35 percent Democratic. The drummer on the Praise Team is none other than Ed Pawlowski—the Democratic mayor of nearby Allentown. Absent these details, one might surmise—from New Covenant’s website and its statements of belief, mission, vision, and values—that the congregants would fall unreservedly into the arms of Republicans and eager organizations of the Christian Right pining for activists.

Interviews with parishioners of New Covenant reveal a complicated relationship between work and the labor movement. From these conversations, five conclusions emerge that warrant further research into conservative Protestantism to gain a more complete perspective:

1. The theme of one’s work and the issues important to the labor movement gain relatively little attention in the pastors’ sermons, leaving church attendees to draw their own conclusions.

2. As such, theologically conservative attendees of Protestant churches are not reflexively against the interests of labor or the labor movement on the basis of church teaching.

3. Attendees of conservative Protestant churches tend to have a “theology of work” that upholds the inherent value of one’s daily work as an aspect of Christian discipleship and one’s relationship with God.

4. Depending on the location of the church, attendees of such churches can be found in labor unions and they identify with the broader goals of the union in terms of pay, benefits, and job protection.

5. Nonetheless, simultaneous church attendance/membership and union membership does imply support for the social goals that a union might have in addition to objectives on wages, benefits, and job protection.

Associate Pastor Bob Rentler’s theology of work acknowledges God as the source of one’s work and that prosperity is a result of God-given wisdom. “On the other hand, if one is unemployed, though someone might be able to continue to survive, so to speak, on unemployment benefits, we would strongly encourage [you to work] if you can work… [the Bible says] if a man wants to eat, he should work. So we feel strongly that people should work and there’s a strong work ethic that can be extracted from scriptures like that one.” A strong work ethic means avoiding entitlement.7

Speaking with retirees from Bethlehem Steel and Lucent was a welcome step back in time, into a seemingly golden age of highpaying, secure union labor. Jim Lewis is a retired member of Local 2600 (and 2590) of the United Steelworkers of America. He worked at Bethlehem Steel from 1964 to 1998 as an electronic systems repairman. For Lewis, there was no conflict in those days about being a church member and a union member. He even recalls how one church started out by leasing space from the union hall, since the union was “very open to religion.” He remembers when union local meetings regularly began with prayer. There was a time for private prayer too, but “just between you and the Lord, it was a little short for me.” As for biblical tenets about work: “It tells us that we are supposed to work unto our employer as we would serve a king…I believe that wholeheartedly. Do your best, try to get along with everybody.”8

Wally Beck—whose generation could count on lifetime employment at a single company—worked as a layout operator at Lucent, producing semi-conductors from 1960 until 1999. As a member of New Covenant since 1990, his experience with fellow parishioners around issues of work and labor has been praying for “good jobs, jobs that can support the people.” If not a prayer for unions, a unionstyle prayer! For Beck, the Bible does teach about work with an emphasis on “doing the best job you can—we’re working for Jesus.” The church teaches that “we are supposed to be examples for Him, we are working for Him. We want to be examples to other people.” Union membership and doing the good work required of Christ-like Christians is entirely possible, but the biggest problem is “union doctrine” or what unions “support as far as [the] political.” Candidates who are not pro-life are the “biggest divisive thing that caused me to think differently” as “life is the most important thing.” He calls it “the big separation,” referring to an internal conflict between supporting the union and having problems with what the union supports. As a union steward for nearly two decades, “it’s hard to vote for candidates that are talking about abortion…Planned Parenthood and stuff like that. I say: ‘What about life, if it weren’t for life, we wouldn’t be here!’ But I still believe we should be looking for a fair wage and good working conditions.”9

The death of the manufacturing base in Bethlehem wiped out many a union position. Now public school teachers lead those who carry a union banner at New Covenant, and some even do it with enthusiasm—with the exception of one teacher at Freedom High School. Mike Bachman refuses to join the local Bethlehem Education Association because he thinks teachers’ unions should only be involved in classroom matters, instead of supporting pro-choice or gay rights platforms. He acknowledges that union contracts have sustained his benefits and pay—even in this economic downturn—but sometimes feels “there really isn’t much need for unions anymore because we’re not sending ten-year-old kids into a mine or making people work twenty-hour shifts.”10

While Bachman reluctantly affirms the value of union contracts (even as he repudiates membership in his local), John and Janet Callahan—a contractor and insurance agency employee, respectively—resolutely oppose unions for government employees. Although they tepidly approve of private sector unionization, their view is that organized labor had its purpose when it offered once-needed protections at the work site as well as competitive benefits and pay. But they believe that unions now handcuff companies, are cost prohibitive, and prevent people from gaining employment. According to the Callahans, “The Bible teaches that you’re supposed to treat your employer as if it were the Lord himself…so applying your faith to your labor force [means] you are there to do the best job you can do, all the time. That’s how our faith applies to the workforce, so why would we need a union to do that? To protect us from what? Doing our job? Or showing up on time?”11

Madison, Wisconsin might be a nine hundred-mile drive from Bethlehem, but too close for comfort for this couple. They say it’s “ridiculous” that government workers in Wisconsin protested for “privileges” such as health care and retirement. “They don’t have a right for me to pay their retirement…No one pays for mine, so why should I pay for theirs?” Everyone needs to sacrifice something in this economy, but unions are “saying forget sacrificing anything… and on top of that, they want more…it doesn’t make any sense, it’s not practical. Why are they not proposing concessions [to] help the economy?”12

Even if the labor movement is able to identify “labor evangelicals”—churchgoers who are theologically conservative but labor-friendly—in the United States, cooperation will be with believers who do not share assumptions about the sources of human failure and the conditions for its renewal. As the interviews with New Covenant members indicate, working-class evangelicals evaluate their workplace in light of the inspired truth and divine authority of the Bible. Human fallibility is not some general aspect of the human condition for evangelicals—sin separates humanity from God and God’s will for each person’s life. As Paul—Christianity’s first century missionary and theologian—wrote in the fifth chapter in the Letter to the Romans: “by the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners.” Only through Jesus Christ’s “act of righteousness” can there be “justification and life for all.” Human struggle will never build a new world from the ashes of the old. Eschatological hope—faith about the future—must be grounded in God. But some evangelicals have rediscovered the idea that even as the Kingdom of God will never be realized on earth, one need not abandon the planet altogether. Even if one works for one’s employer as one would serve a king, as Wally Beck suggested earlier, the catch is that an employer’s authority is derivative of and subject to God’s law too. This is the opening for labor evangelicals who will have to discern how to deal with God-ordained authority on Earth and the sinfulness of those to whom it has been entrusted. Maybe it is also an opening for a labor movement that does not subscribe to, but is purposefully aware of, what some evangelicals call their “worldview”—a world corrupted by sin but also susceptible to healing by God’s redeeming love.

What is a labor movement to do? Labor can listen and learn how its own members, or even potential allies, give voice to their sighs and seek their strength. The patterns of cooperation with evangelicals will not be smooth. One may find solidarity on labor issues but find it undermined, for example, with the recognition of equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The National Association of Evangelicals’ “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” statement remains a groundbreaking document in its clear demands to live in “biblical faithfulness” and engage in public life, including “governments, families, churches, schools, businesses, and labor unions.”13 Yet the statement also argues against full participation for gays and lesbians to fully and equally engage in that public life. Still, it is remarkable that the document refers, at all, to labor unions along with related appeals to seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable. The writers emphasize the activity of “historical exemplars of evangelical public responsibility” in England, such as abolitionist William Wilberforce or Isaac Backus (who protested the state-established church of eighteenth-century Massachusetts).

It is unclear how the many faces of theologically conservative Protestantism will be ready to organize for labor justice. Yet it is entirely possible that the millions of such Protestants who have nothing to do with the organized Christian Right or the Tea Party may be looking for a place outside of their church to roll up their sleeves. Some of those allies can be found at New Covenant Christian Community Church every Sunday. Some of labor’s most determined opponents can also be found there. Conservative Protestants can come to different conclusions while reading the same Bible. A study of theology may be a useful activity for twenty-first-century labor organizers!

 

Notes:

1. David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 21-40.
2. National Association of Evangelicals, “What Is an Evangelical?,” available at www.nae.net/church-and-faith-partners/ what-is-an-evangelical (accessed on May 30, 2011).
3. Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 13th ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 212-213.
4. Ibid., 251.
5. Ardith Hilliard & David Venditta, Forging America: The Story of Bethlehem Steel (Allentown, PA.: The Morning Call, 2010),
6. Scott Thumma & Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), xxi.
7. Pastor Bob Rentler, interview by Ken Estey, April 2, 2011.
8. Jim Lewis, interview by Ken Estey, April 3, 2011.
9. Wally Beck, interview by Ken Estey, April 3, 2011.
10. Mike Bachman, interview by Ken Estey, April 3, 2011.
11. John and Janet Callahan, interview by Ken Estey, April 2, 2011.
12. Ibid.
13. National Association of Evangelicals, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” available at www.nae.net/images/content/For_The_Health_Of_The_Nation.pdf.