The New Religious Left

Published January 1, 2008

Nearly two decades after the birth of the Religious Right, a new movement of religious activists is on the rise. This time, though, they lean left.

In “The Religious Left, Reborn,” the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga explores the origins and battlefronts of the rising force.

“Working mostly at the state and local level, and often in lockstep with unions, the ministers, priests, rabbis, and laity of this new Religious Left have lent their moral authority to a variety of left-wing causes,” Malanga writes. Targeted causes include “living” wages, union organization drives, opposing free trade, and blocking the expansion of non-unionized businesses such as Wal-Mart.

Today’s Religious Left “owes much to the tireless efforts of savvy labor bosses, especially AFL-CIO president John Sweeney,” Malanga writes. When Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1996, a primary goal was to re-harness religion to the union bandwagon.

To that end, the AFL-CIO has formed a number of programs, including the “Labor in the Pulpits” program, to “preach the virtues of organized labor and tout its political agenda”; the “Seminary Summer” program to place seminarians on summer break with union locals where they engage in union field work; and the “New Sanctuary” program that uses churches to give illegal aliens sanctuary from deportation.

Reliable Ally

The Religious Left has successfully emulated many of the tactics the Religious Right made successful, while suppressing opposition, even religion itself, with virulent and polarizing rhetoric.

“Indeed, the movement’s effectiveness has made it one of organized labor’s most reliable allies,” writes Malanga.

Critics abound, though. Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute wrote that if seminarians and congregational leaders “don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.”

Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, says leftist clerics can best relieve poverty by emphasizing strong family units and personal responsibility. A kind of “Christian socialism” is not the solution, he says.

Sources: “The Religious Left, Reborn,” The Manhattan Institute,; “Who’s Afraid of Free Trade?” The Acton Institute,

Realistic Look at Unions’ Troubles

Labor unions paradoxically appear to be growing weaker yet more powerful at the same time.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates jumped to obey in 2007 when Service Employees International Union officials said candidates could not gain the SEIU’s endorsement unless they offered a universal health care plan and spent a day in a worker’s shoes.

Yet union officials must face the reality of the labor movement’s 50-year decline in membership. Kim Moody’s eccentric but thoughtful new book, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, does just that. Moody analyzes the market economy in which today’s unions operate and pins the decline on union officials’ collaboration with corporate capitalism, up to and including modeling unions after a corporatist structure.

Moody relives recent mergers and splits between major unions, such as the split between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Moody also notes the weakening clout of workers as evidenced recently by UAW’s one-day strike against General Motors and a strike Southern California garbage workers cut short because the company began advertising for permanent replacement workers.

Moody’s suggested solution is not new: Return to local union control and relive the 1960s civil rights movement for the benefit of migrant workers. The new influx of workers, he hopes, will re-energize the movement and take it back to its glory days.

Source: “Labor Notes” page for Moody book:

Ryan Bedford ([email protected]) is a labor analyst with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.