Religious freedom claims have significant deference in the U.S. legal system, and they have increasingly come into conflict with the rights of workers. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Ken Estey warns that a failure to balance religious liberty with public welfare undermines the common good.
Religious freedom cases also affect working-class people beyond the workplace. In April, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether a church was eligible for a grant from a state program aimed at non-profits. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri sought a grant from a state program aimed at resurfacing playgrounds with recycled tires. The state initially denied Trinity’s application on the basis of Section 7 of the state constitution, which stipulates that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
What could possibly be wrong with fixing a playground? After all, although it is on church property, children from the community around Trinity Lutheran may use it as well. Just the week before, on April 13, the new Republican governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens issued a statement supporting the church’s claim: “Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids… That’s just wrong… We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work.”
The controversy at Trinity Lutheran Church is much bigger than their playground. Will the Roberts court use this case, despite the governor’s announcement, to strike down Missouri’s bar on direct state aid to religious institutions – and in the process also overturn similar prohibitions in 37 other states? A broad ruling could have significant consequences, including direct public funding for private, religious schools – most of which are Christian. That may be one rationale for the suit over the playground grant. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Trinity’s legal representation, states on its website that the “Christian community gained growing awareness that the threats to its freedom were multiplying. The legal system, which was built on a moral and Christian foundation, had been steadily moving against religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. And very few Christians were showing up in court to put up a fight. By funding cases, training attorneys, and successfully advocating for freedom in court, Alliance Defending Freedom changed that.”
Trinity Lutheran Church is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, a conservative evangelical denomination, well to the right (theologically and politically) of fellow Lutherans in the larger, more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Trinity’s physical location is a few miles from Columbia’s downtown but a million miles from its most economically challenged neighborhoods. The census tract in which Trinity is located has an average income of just over $78,000, while two census tracts to the east, average incomes barely reach $12,000. Trinity’s census tract is 86% white while Columbia as a whole is 77% white. The poverty rate for all of Columbia is nearly 25% against the state average of almost 16%. In this case, the distribution of public funds is not only diverted directly to a church but a congregation that is already in an economically privileged neighborhood. The cost to refurbish Trinity’s playground won’t break Missouri’s bank. And perhaps the church does not minister only to its most proximate neighbors but also draws people from around an economically challenged city.
But this case suggests what might be heading our way: in the name of religious freedom, scarce public funds, those very funds on which the working classes most depend for public services, might be diverted toward private ends that benefit those who already have more resources, ends that may not enhance the common good. The case of Trinity Lutheran Church might only be a playground now, but it could be the plaything for those who want to redistribute public funds for the direct benefit of religious bodies. How will public institutions fare, the ones that working-class people depend upon most, if they are starved of funding as public dollars move into the hands of private institutions that are already unburdened by any taxation?
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-17 academic years, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.
On November 15, 2016, Georgetown University workers, students, staff, faculty, and clergy gathered in the spiritual heart of campus to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
Pope Leo XIII’s pivotal 19th century encyclical laid the foundation for Catholic teaching on labor and the dignity of work. More than a century later, these principles remain profoundly relevant to our society and our campus community on the Hilltop. These are the opening remarks offered by KI Executive Director and Georgetown University Professor of History, Joseph A. McCartin.
Exactly 125 years ago, in 1891, the industrializing world was going through a traumatic transformation that should seem familiar to us today: new technologies were transforming work; people were being uprooted by economic process from the lands of their birth and their traditional ways of life and drawn to the centers of the new economy, fleeing the collapsing worlds their parents had known and seeking new and better ones; millions of immigrants, emigrants, and migrants were crossing borders and seeking new homes; cities were growing and their problems were multiplying; tensions were emerging as cultures clashed; xenophobia was ignited (in the US it took the form of the American Protective Association, which sought to ban Catholic immigrants to this country); inequality was surging as some reaped enormous, unprecedented, and obscene profits from the new economy while others suffered egregious exploitation. Almost everywhere, including here in the United States, traditional politics was failing to come to grips with these changes and the anxieties they were unleashing. The US in those years saw the emergence of a powerful Populist movement, whose leaders criticized both mainstream parties as inadequate to the task of taming industrialism and the disruptive changes it was wreaking. A range of radicalisms beckoned to followers here and abroad – Marxian socialism, Bakunin-ite anarchism, Henry George’s Single Tax, Edward Bellamy’s Nationalism. The world was roiling.
It was into the chaotic present of that troubled moment that Pope Leo XIII stepped with words intended to call the world to a higher ground, a papal encyclical called Rerum Novarum. In English the title could be translated as “New Things” (or perhaps “Revolutionary Change”). The new things that Leo wrote about were the mixed fruits of industrialism: increased wealth on the one hand, and growing oppression and inequality on the other. The encyclical went on to argue that industrialism could be a good thing for humanity, but only if it was harnessed to serve the common good. Leo condemned unbridled materialism in no uncertain terms; and, while he criticized Marxian socialism, he strongly defended the rights of the poor and of workers. He called for protection of the workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers.
With this encyclical Leo launched what in time became known as Catholic Social Teaching. Rooted in the Gospels of Jesus and the traditional teachings of the church, Catholic Social Teaching adapted these ancient teachings about justice to the social situation of the industrializing world. Out of this teaching grew concepts of what we now call “social justice.” This teaching above all recognized the dignity of the worker and rested on the unshakable assertion that the economy existed to serve humanity; humans did not exist to serve the economy. This teaching was elaborated over the course of the 20th century by other popes, bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people. It played a crucial role in shaping the outlook of the Catholics who went on to play a leadership role in the American union movement from Philip Murray of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, to Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers in the 1960s, to Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU in our own day.
Catholic social teaching found an echo in the teachings of the other Abrahamic faith traditions: in the Social Gospel of Protestant Christians; in the notion of Tikkun olam (healing a broken world) or the vision of Yahweh as the deliverer of an enslaved and oppressed people, which is so central to Judaism; and in Islam’s deep concerns for fairness to the worker. In the end what Leo said in Rerum Novarum was not all that different from what the Prophet Muhammed said in the Holy Quran: “Your servants/workers are your brothers whom God the most High has placed under your authority. Therefore, a person who has a brother under his authority, should feed him out of that which he eats himself and should dress him with the same kind of clothes which he wears himself; he should not assign work to him which is beyond his capacity, and if you do so, then help him in his work.”
On those occasions when they have spoken to their deepest truths, these three great Abrahamic faith traditions have offered a moral bulwark against exploitation and for the care and respect of the worker.
Today we meet to honor an important moment in the history of faith-driven commandments for justice and solidarity. We meet to mark the 125 anniversary of Pope Leo’s powerful statement.
There is no doubt that we meet in troubled times. As it was 125 years ago, the world is again roiling. As 125 years ago we are in desperate need of clear moral voices that can draw on our deepest traditions and bring them to bear on the problems of our time in ways that honor our common humanity, that bring healing to a wounded world, that bring justice. And so we gather this afternoon.
Today we will hear from many voice from our community: workers, teachers, students, organizers, and clergy. And that is as it should be. Pronouncements from papal chairs have their place. Wise teachings from those who have earned seats of authority in our most hallowed institutions have much to teach us. But we should never forget that it rests on all of us to preserve and carry on the deepest values that such teachings seek to clarify. Those are entrusted to us. Powerful authorities will come and go; the good and bad, the worthy and the unworthy will alternate in the seats of power. We cannot entrust to those who hold such seats alone the role of leading. We must all take up that burden. If we are to carry on the best of our traditions, we must all be leaders. It is in a very deep way, on us.
And so in that spirit, we open these reflections.
Before we turn to the program, a word of thanks is in order to a few people. First to Prof. Rosemary Sokas, whose idea this was in the first place. We are deeply grateful to her for her leadership on this campus and her lifelong work dedicated to workplace safety, to respect for the lives, bodies, minds and souls of people who work. Second, I would also like to thank the staff of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, Jessica Fernanda Chilin, who has emerged as one of our community’s most important voices on issues of justice for immigrant people, and the indefatigable Alex Taliadoros, whose tireless, and I do mean tireless, work made this event possible. Alex above all made this event made this happen. I would also like to offer a word of thanks to our cosponsors:
- Population Health Initiative at the Georgetown School of Nursing & Health Studies
- Catholic Chaplaincy and Campus Ministry
- The Initiative on Catholic Social Through and Public Life
- The Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service
- The Catholic Student Fellowship
- The Georgetown Solidarity Committee
This year marks the 125th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s pivotal 19th century encyclical that laid the foundation for Catholic teaching on labor and the dignity of work. More than a century later, these principles remain profoundly relevant to our society and our campus community on the Hilltop.
Join us at 4pm on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 in Dahlgren Chapel as we reflect on the significance of Rerum Novarum and how we live out its values today. Workers, Students, Clergy, and Faculty will share their perspectives. A reception will follow on the first floor of Healy Hall.
This event is cohosted by the Population Health Initiative at the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, Catholic Chaplaincy at Georgetown, the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, and the Georgetown Catholic Student Fellowship.
Questions and accommodation requests related to disability can be made by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. A good faith effort will be made to fulfill requests.
The Kalmanovitz Initiative invites you to a celebration for the 125th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the nineteenth century Catholic encyclical that laid the foundation of the Church’s teachings on labor and worker rights. The event will take place on Sunday, May 1, at the historic Our Lady of Queen Peace Church in Arlington and is being sponsored by the parish’s Labor & Income Inequality Team. KI Director Joe McCartin will be speaking about the significance of Rerum Novarum and Catholic social teaching on the dignity of workers more broadly. Dinner and drinks will be provided for those who attend.
The celebration, which will take place on the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker, will include a simultaneous Spanish Headset Translation. Please email Laura Bandini at email@example.com with questions or requests related to disability as soon as possible. We hope you can join us!
Sunday, May 1st, 7:15pm
Our Lady Queen of Peace
2700 S. 19th St. Arlington VA 22204