Why evangelicals matter to the labor movement

Conventional wisdom tells us that all evangelicals must be anti-union because they are theologically and politically conservative. Therefore, you might assume, labor has nothing to gain from the sixty-two million adult adherents of evangelicalism in the U.S. Yet evangelicals were at the forefront of many progressive movements in the nineteenth century, such as abolitionism. Today, evangelicals play leading roles in issues of climate change, immigration reform, torture, and human trafficking. Some are also active in the labor movement.

To understand why, we need to look beyond the Moral Majority of the 1970s to the history of evangelicalism. I bet you didn’t know that, according to evangelist Dr. J. Edwin Orr, “the first trade union was formed by evangelicals as a protest against low salaries.” Orr had in mind the six Tolpuddle Martyrs, Methodist and evangelical, who attempted to form a union in Dorchester, about 130 miles southeast of London. They were arrested and transferred to an Australian penal colony in 1834, but evangelical activists successfully fought to secure their release.

In keeping with this legacy, the 2004 National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) publication, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” argues that a good government “preserves the God-ordained responsibilities of society’s other institutions, such as churches, other faith-centered organizations, schools, families, labor unions, and businesses.” Unions have a positive part to play in public life, even for evangelicals.

It also helps to have a clearer sense of what it means to be an evangelical, a topic adherents have debated among themselves for years. Just this past October, the NAE and LifeWay Research issued a jointly sponsored report that emphasized that evangelicals are people of faith who should be defined by their beliefs and not by their politics or race.

So what beliefs lie at the heart of evangelicalism? In short, the Bible is the highest authority for belief. There, evangelical Christians are taught to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as savior. Christ’s death on the cross removes the penalties for sin. Trust in Jesus Christ alone as savior makes it possible to receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Around 30% of Americans hold these beliefs, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Contrary to media representations, evangelicals include many African-American Protestants, even though they are often “separated out of polls seeking to identify the political preferences of evangelicals.” Evangelicals also include many working-class people, members of unions, and others who are sympathetic to unions.

I found powerful evidence of this in interviews that I conducted with African-American evangelical workers, members of then Local 369 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), in the aftermath of their 2009 strike against Moncure Plywood in central North Carolina. Their views suggest creative avenues for future labor evangelicals, if that spark ignites. For example, evangelicals have an especially acute sense of God’s personal presence in every aspect of daily life.

One member, Charles Raines, saw no distinction between being on strike and being a faithful Christian. Raines has been a member of nearby Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church since 1981 and a skilled worker on nearly every phase of plywood production since his first day on the job in June 1968. His pride in his work at Moncure Plywood was unmistakable. His theology of work argues that one has to “earn his living by the sweat of his brow, you don’t work, you don’t eat” – a deft combination of verses from the Old and the New Testaments.

Unions also “work,” in Raines’s view, by making a tough job doable at the plywood factory. When the firm was sold to new anti-union owners, the workers hit the picket line. Raines argued that the picket line can be equated with the Church itself: “We’ve already heard of the phrase where there is unity there is strength, where two or three are gathered in my name, He will be in the midst. If God is in the midst of something, you got to be strong.”

Raines invoked the Bible verse that describes what’s necessary to form a church – a small collection of believers who gather in the name of Jesus to invoke his presence. God was in the midst of Local 369: “I know that he had our backs, because when people come together like at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came in like a mighty rustling wind, everyone was of one accord, they received the Holy Spirit, tongues, so when people get together, believers, and pray about a thing, God is in it, because he can’t go back on his word.” Raines used a story from the New Testament to reinforce his point that God was in the midst of their resistance, blessing and supporting that work.

Working class American evangelicals have much to contribute to the labor movement. Their theology of work is undergirded by the doctrine that everyone is created in the image of God. They teach that we are all co-creators with God to make the world a better place as we also look forward to its ultimate redemption on the basis of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Just the thought of it is dizzying, but evangelicals really believe this even as they recognize the dire effects of sin on the workplace.

If anyone believes it is possible to “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,” it is your evangelical co-worker. The way in which that will occur may be unfamiliar and may well be uncomfortable in many ways. But it is unlikely that any revival of working class prospects or the labor movement is possible in the United States without the involvement of its millions of evangelicals.

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of “A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work.” His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion, with a particular focus on labor and Christianity. This article originally appeared at the Working-Class Perspectives blog, which is hosted by the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

Photo: Interfaith Worker Justice signs in preparation for a picket line. | Interfaith Worker Justice.


Ken Estey
Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an assistant professor in studies in religion. The author of "A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work," his research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity. He is also co-chair of the Class, Religion, and Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion.