Behind minimum wage fight, voices of faith

Involvement in the minimum wage movement is part of a growing push by some religious leaders to reassert their authority as moral voices in issues of economic justice, some say. 

Nick Ut/AP
Workers rally outside the Ronald Reagan State Building in Los Angeles after California's Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill creating highest statewide minimum wage at $15 an hour by 2022 in Los Angeles April 4. California and New York acted Monday to gradually push their statewide minimum wages to $15 an hour, the highest level in the nation. (

The conspicuous stand by religious leaders in favor of raising the minimum wage could play a role in rebalancing how Americans view religion in politics, historians and political scientists say.

On Monday, leaders from a range of Christian denominations, as well as some Jewish and Muslim representatives, publicly announced their support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, calling on presidential candidates to incorporate a “living wage” in their political agendas and to strengthen union rights. The call – which comes days after officials in California and New York took steps toward raising the wage floor in those states – is the latest demonstration of some faith groups’ support for the swelling wage movement nationwide.

“For us it’s rooted in the teachings of Jesus,” says the Rev. Steven Martin, spokesperson for the Washington-based National Council of Churches, a coalition of Christian denominations from across the nation and one of the signatories. “It’s a faith issue, a basic justice issue. I think we are bound to Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself; I would want for another person to enjoy the kind of security and life that I have.”

The effort, historians say, is part of a growing push by some religious leaders, perhaps most prominently Pope Francis, to reassert their authority as moral voices in broader issues of economic justice in the face of a prevailing notion of morality that is tied to conservative politics and issues of gender and sexuality.

“It is a distortion of history that we think of religious actors as primarily enrolled in the side of anti-labor policy and taking a stance that defines the economy as outside of the moral concerns of religion,” says Bethany Moreton, a professor of history at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and author of the 2009 book, “To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.” “It’s incredibly important to emphasize that there has been religious participation in economic justice movements in this country at every point.”

The groups behind Monday’s call, she adds, are “pulling focus back to the much broader issues that I think a lot of people count on their faith, religious institutions, religious leaders, and fellow congregants to engage and to work out.”

The push, while small, matters, political scientists say, because it suggests the beginnings of a return to a political balance to religion.

“It is not healthy for religion to only be identified with one political party,” says David Campbell, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s political science department in South Bend, Ind. “Religion should be above the partisan fray.”

The link between religion and social justice movements has a long history in America. Religious groups, such as the Quakers, were staunch supporters of the abolitionist movement to the free the slaves. The late 19th century also saw the rise of the social gospel movement, whereby mostly Protestant ministers connected earthly good works to heavenly salvation and urged their congregations to emulate Christ. Roman Catholic clergy also became active in labor movements in the first half of the 20th century; John Ryan, a Catholic priest and economist, was among the early and most influential proponents of the concept of a living wage.

The civil rights movement in the 20th century also was strengthened by the support of faith groups.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “was a disciple of the Social Gospel, and although we tend to evaluate his legacy on the basis of his contributions to racial justice, the reality is that racial justice was part of a much larger calculus of social justice that he believed should be the mark of our society,” writes Andrew Hogue, director of the philanthropy and public service program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

The latter part of the 20th century, however, saw a shift in that view of religion as a friend to the laborer, says Heath Carter, an assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University. A large part of that is due to the cold war, which correlated atheism with communism and Christianity with capitalism, he says.

A second factor is the backlash to the social and cultural transformations of the 1960s and '70s. The Moral Majority, a Christian fundamentalist group that characterized itself as pro-family and pro-American, took hardline positions against legalized abortion and the gay rights movement. By the 1980s, “A lot of people held the impression that this was the political expression of Christianity: your stand on abortion, on homosexuality,” Professor Carter says.

That perception, in many ways, prevails today.

“Conservatism and religion now are thought to be intertwined,” says Professor Campbell at Notre Dame. And indeed, he adds, “you are more likely to find religion walking in lockstep with [the Republican] party than you are on the left.”

The steady supporting role that clergy and interfaith groups have played in the minimum wage movement is indicative of one effort to reaffirm religion’s voice beyond gender and sexuality issues, toward the realm of social justice, Professor Campbell says.

Over the past year, faith leaders in California and New York, as well as Oregon, Illinois, and Iowa have urged policymakers to raise the wage floor. And the religious groups who signed Monday’s call to action, titled “An Interfaith Call for Moral Action on the Economy,” also drew directly on Dr. King’s legacy.

The push, some note, is limited. The religious groups associated with the minimum wage movement so far have been the same ones that have historically engaged in economic justice movements: Unitarian Universalists, Methodists, Catholics, some Presbyterians and Baptists, among other groups.

“It is not at all surprising to see an interfaith group like this one involving itself with wage debates,” writes Dr. Hogue at Baylor. “This flows naturally from the same stream of social justice from which faith communities have engaged for generations.”      

Nonetheless, “it does have the potential to – on the ground and in local communities – change the categories through which ordinary Americans, many of whom take their faith very seriously, see these issues,” says Carter.

And if the global support for Pope Francis is any indication, Americans and others are embracing a kind of spirituality that encompasses a broader sense of morality.

“I think there’s a real hunger for religiously informed, thoughtful analysis of what counts as a moral way to run an economy,” says Professor Moreton at Dartmouth.

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