These are the worst of times for organized labor, which during the post-World War II decades – the heyday of middle class expansion – represented more than one-third of all private sector workers.
Today, that number is less than 7 percent.
This precipitous decline has, not coincidentally, been accompanied by a historic surge in economic inequality, which has some leading economists calling ours a new Gilded Age; the disparities between the richest and the rest continue to become only more and more staggering with each passing year.
In 2014, Wall Street bonuses amounted to more than double the combined total income of all American minimum wage earners.
Despite such jaw-dropping figures, you’ll be hard-pressed to find prominent evangelicals who are fighting to make inequality an election-year issue, let alone willing to join beleaguered union organizers in the trenches.
Any number of historical explanations exist for this, none of which is necessarily connected to the gospel.
In fact, in the late 19th century, ordinary believers helped to launch the trade union movement precisely because the Bible told them so – a reading, notably, that was no more popular among the church leaders of their day than it is among our own.
Working-class Christians staked their theological outlook on a number of different biblical foundations.
First, they pointed out that Jesus – “the lowly Nazarene” – had been a working man himself.
How was it that the very churches that purported to be his earthly representatives sided so consistently with management? For many of the people in the pews, it seemed a clear case of hypocrisy.
A woman by the name of Miranda Meane wrote to this effect, “We could but feel that we were indeed outcasts; that all we had been taught in childhood, about the Savior choosing the meek and lowly for his companions and followers, was but an idle fable; that Heaven was but for the rich; that its massive gates would open only to those coming in their fine coaches, with liveried attendants.”
And if it was a betrayal of Christ, it was a costly one at that.
As Andrew Cameron, a major player in the early labor movement, vowed, “If ministers, instead of being the slick-spittles and apologists of wrongdoers … would emulate the example of the master they profess to serve, and denounce sin in high places; know no distinction between the mechanic and the millionaire, would preach the simple story of the cross … the evangelization of the world [would soon be] accomplished.”
Christian laborers looked not only to the person of Christ but also to his teachings.
When in the mid-1880s Chicago merchant John Farwell – one of Dwight Moody’s leading patrons – challenged the Knights of Labor to become “students of the four gospels and true followers of Christ,” he stirred up a theological hornet’s nest.
One retort read, “As a ‘student of the four gospels,’ I have learned that there is a fair prospect for the Knights of Labor to reach the kingdom of heaven, but I can hardly see any chance at all for Mr. Farwell. It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for him to get there.”
The writer went on, “Mr. Farwell, of course, does not believe the New Testament, and the evidence of his infidelity is this, that although he is a richer man than any man that lived in Judea at the time of Christ, yet he is trying to be richer still. He is working very hard and very successfully to make himself ineligible of a place in the kingdom.”
Workers drew strength for their struggle from other parts of Scripture as well. Those campaigning for a shortened work week regularly cited Exodus 20:9-10, which reads, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.”
Another favorite was James 5, which begins, “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
In 1913, James Kline, the president of the International Brotherhood of Blacksmiths, stood before a throng of ministers, read this passage and then declared, “I believe that I can see the conditions of our day depicted in the fifth Chapter of James, and would like to hear a few sermons preached from that chapter.” He added, pointedly, “I have never heard an interpretation.”
A century later, Kline’s words ring all too true, which is to say: We are a people urgently in need of prophets, who will cry out into the wilderness of our own Gilded Age – as a certain first-century artisan once put it – “the laborer is worthy of his hire.”
Heath W. Carter is an assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University and the author of “Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.” A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench blog and is used with permission. Carter’s writings can also be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @heathwcarter.