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WWJD? The Religious Right's Backing of Walker's Union-Busting

Today’s conservative Christian leaders say that Jesus opposes a secure living wage, and that workers should accept as good slaves whatever treatment their employers dish out.

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter here.  

While the assault on unions by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP governors and legislators seems driven mostly by the billionaire Koch brothers and corporate-funded groups, religious right leaders and activists have spent decades creating fertile soil for anti-union campaigns through the promotion of “biblical capitalism,” which researcher Rachel Tabachnick describes as “the belief that unregulated capitalism is biblically mandated.”

Pseudo-historian David Barton, a frequent guest of broadcaster Glenn Beck, is using his newly enlarged audience to promote American exceptionalism (America was created by its divinely-inspired founders as a country of, by, and for Christians) and Tea Party-on-steroids economics (Jesus and the Bible oppose progressive taxes, capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and minimum wage laws). The religious right has a long practice of claiming divine mandate for its policy agenda as it makes for an exceptionally potent political argument: if God supports radically limited government, then progressive policies are not only wrong but evil, and supporters of liberal policies are not only political opponents but enemies of God.

Two days after the November 2010 elections, Barton, Newt Gingrich, and Jim Garlow (who runs Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership group), held a conference call with pastors to celebrate conservative political gains. On the call, Garlow and Barton asserted a biblical underpinning for far-right economic policies: Taxation and deficit spending, they said, amount to theft, a violation of the Ten Commandments. The estate tax, Barton said, is “absolutely condemned” by the Bible as the “most immoral” of taxes. Jesus, he said, had “teachings” condemning the capital gains tax and minimum wage.

Barton also enlists Jesus in the war against unions and collective bargaining. Two years ago Barton devoted his Wallbuilders Live radio show to celebrating a Supreme Court decision that upheld an Idaho law ending state withholding of public employee union political funds. Barton’s co-host Rick Green called for activists to “spark a fire” and encourage other states to take up the effort to disrupt unions’ political activities. Barton called the Supreme Court’s decision “the right historical position and the right biblical position,” and went on to explain why the Bible is anti-union.

According to Barton, a parable from the 20th chapter of the book of Matthew about the owner of a vineyard making different arrangements with workers was about “the right of private contract”—in other words, the right of employers to come to individual agreements with each employee. Jesus’ parable, he said, is “anti-minimum wage” and “anti-socialist-union kind of stuff.” (This is just one of the parables of Jesus cited by Barton and others in support of laissez-faire economic policies.)

The religious right’s anti-union roots are long and deep. Researchers have traced them through the teachings of R.J. Rushdoony, an intellectual godfather of sorts for much of the increasingly dominionist religious right; Gary North, a leading Christian Reconstructionist; and through fundamentalist textbooks used by homeschoolers and Christian schools. The roots of the Family, as Peter Laarman notes in his examination of religious indifference to the decades-long war on workers’ rights, are in anti-unionism. Back in 1942, according to Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power:

[T]he National Association of Manufacturers staked [Family founder Abraham Vereide] to a meeting of congressmen who would become students of his spiritual politics, among them Virginia senator Absalom Willis Robertson—Pat Robertson’s father. Vereide returned the manufacturers’ favor by telling his new congressional followers that God wanted them to break the spine of organized labor. They did.

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