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The Immaculate Conception of the Free Market

For years, Big Tim Davies dug his own grave. Along with his nephews Josh and Cory.  They were miners killed in an

Memorial for victims of the Sago mine disaster.

explosion, along with eight others, at the Sago coal mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia in February, 2006.  Coal mining is dangerous work, but lax regulation and inadequate enforcement of safety measures put Tim, Josh and Cory in much greater danger.  This neglect was politically motivated, of course, with mine owners and their advocates working hard to prevent any oversight of their operations.  But it was also fueled by the creed of the Religious Right free marketeers that treats employers as sinless heroes battling overweening government and rapacious unions.  This religious creed is a big reason these men died.The Religious Right persistently attacks government regulation and bashes unions as un-Biblical because they contradict the sanctity of private property.  Its adherents even go so far as to use Biblical support for slavery to argue that employees’ should submit to employers. Their religious zeal condemns any effort to protect workers or allow them any say in their working conditions.  They claim unions “destroy free enterprise,” and violate the freedom of contract, each of which they say is sanctified by the Bible.  The Republican Party has embraced these tenets to such an extent that both nationally and in the states “antiunion zealotry has become a core premise of the GOP.”

But the Religious Right’s denunciation of unions ignores the actual conduct of employers; they assume that conduct is so pure it rules out any need for unions.  They absolve employers in advance of misconduct, saving all their moral indignation for employees and their representatives.  But mine operators’ willful neglect of their employees’ well-being exposes how false their creed is.

On April 5, 2010, the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV exploded, killing 29 miners.  The owner, Massey Energy

A protester holds a sign behind Massey Energy Company Vice President and General Council Shane Harvey, left, and Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, as they wait to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety.

Company, had over 350 safety violations, more than 20 of them “flagrant,” but continued to operate unimpeded by contesting the violations and thus barring any effective oversight of its operations.  It systematically violated safety standards, “gaming the system to protect its bottom line, putting profits ahead of the safety of its workers.”  Violating the law was its accepted practice; any complaints were silenced.  The same conduct by another “scofflaw mine” –– which amounts to “industrial homicide” ––  killed Big Tim and his nephews.  Both mines were nonunion.Sin loves a power vacuum –– where those who have it can exploit those without it.  domination out of greed or ego or the lust for more power is what sin looks like in the economic realm.  This vacuum existed at both mines because the employees had no union.  So the company was free to thumb its nose at their safety in its relentless pursuit of ever greater profits.

Would a union have made a difference?  You bet it would.  A recent study by a Stanford Law professor shows how much safer mines are where there is a union looking out for the workers: “unionization predicts about a 17-33% drop in traumatic injuries and about a 33-72% drop in fatalities.”  With a union Big Jim and Josh and Cory would likely still be alive today.  The Religious Right can try to ignore employers’ sin, but the families of these men will never forget it.

For resources on faith and worker justice see the Interfaith Worker Justice site.


Santorum’s Heresy

Santorum accuses the President of a “false theology” that “elevates earth above man [sic].” He repeatedly pits humans against the environment, always insisting on the dominance –– he and his fellow travelers call it “dominion” –– of humankind over nature. In the Christian right theology we humans are not really a part of nature, but outside it, over and above it. Endowing us with that near absolute power justifies environmental abuse and exploitation, the kind we’ve seen repeatedly from Hooker Chemical’s destruction of Love Canal to Pacfic Gas and Electric’s poisoning of a California town’s water system (of Erin Brockovich fame).

Putting humans outside and above the natural environment squarely denies the unequivocal Biblical declaration that humankind is a part of nature, having been formed from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). God says we “are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Taking our embeddedness in nature seriously promotes care for the health of the environment as a crucial part of our concern for human welfare.

While the religious right pays lip service to the notion of stewardship, they spend all their energy working to discredit anyone who calls into question the abuse of nature. They don’t really believe restraint in exploiting natural resources is necessary, because, in the words of the Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming from the right wing Cornwall Alliance, nature is “robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting.” Nature will take care of the mess we make. That belief conveniently allow us to deny responsibility for degrading the environment.

"The earth was corrupt in God's sight" (Genesis 6:11)

Espousing these beliefs, Santorum simply dismisses the mountain of evidence for the human impact on global warming as “junk science” and a “hoax.” In order to hold the belief that we are immune from the repercussions of environmental practices, you have to keep your head firmly buried in the sand. Because our survival is bound closely to the health of the natural world, this willful ignorance is lethal.

Using religion to disclaim environmental accountability and deny the mountainous damage we’re inflicting on nature squarely contradicts the Bible’s view of nature. Both the Jewish and Christian scriptures repeatedly celebrate the sanctity of nature in God’s eyes. Genesis mandates an ethic of care towards nature when it declares that humans were put here to “till and keep” the Garden (2:15). The covenant God makes with all life, not just humankind (Genesis 9:8-9), bestows divine blessing on the entire web of existence. And Jesus celebrates the beauty of nature as evidence of God’s care when he says that “even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like” the lowly lily (Matthew 6:29).

Most striking is the right’s anti-Biblical denial of the fundamental affirmation that the creation is “good,” “indeed…very good (Genesis 1:31). In their zeal to assert dominion and disparage those who speak up for the environment, the religious right demeans its goodness. In turning their backs on the harm we relentlessly inflict on the earth and its creatures, they deny its goodness. In promoting policies of unchecked exploitation, they subordinate the goodness of creation to the lust for material gain. Theirs is the false theology. And glorifying humankind at the expense of the natural world will, if it prevails, ultimately destroy us.

"Indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)

Colorblind Racism

Chief Justice Roberts’ declaration that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” at once announced an enticing cure-all for the racist virus that infects our society and staked his claim to racial enlightenment.  It’s a good soundbite, and reassuring to some white folks looking for relief from confronting the legacy of racism and its Siamese twin, white privilege.  For many on both ends of the political spectrum, sadly, colorblindness serves as a mantra for putting slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and pervasive real estate and employment discrimination behind them.

But Roberts and his ilk protest too much; their enthusiasm for repudiating our ancestors’ history betrays an anxiety that Faulkner’s words just might be true for racism: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

“Colorblindness” for Roberts and others is a matter of personal consciousness.  If you’re not willfully discriminating, you’re not tainted by racism.  If a government program is race-neutral on its face, there is no racism there either. The problem is that unconscious racism –– deeply ingrained in structures and cultures of public institutions and programs –– bludgeons people of color all the time.

Take our drug laws, which massively target black men.  In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander thoroughly documents the “stark racial disparities” in their enforcement.  So pervasive is the racism in the criminal punishment system that it has created “a new racial caste system,” with black males at the bottom.  Under the color of law our society has reinstituted “all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

The devotees of colorblindness turn a blind eye to such systemic injustice, however.  They prefer to establish their enlightenment by loudly denouncing individual racists.  Take Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish (Louisiana), who refused a marriage license to a mixed race couple (for their children’s sake).

A liberal father is not on board with mixed race marriage.

Pundits all across the political spectrum gleefully piled on Bardwell.  Even the conservative governor of Louisiana, who backed Birther legislation calling for the release of candidates’ birth certificates, called for Bardwell’s resignation.  But no one –– left or right –– mentioned that the same parish’s school system has been the subject of a decades-long racial discrimination lawsuit brought by the NAACP, in which the Parish has distinguished itself by violating court orders and being held in contempt.  Focusing on institutional racism like this would spoil the phony assurance colorblindness offers that ‘we are beyond all that.’

We need to turn the spotlight on this systemic racism, because the harm it inflicts is far more damaging than individual racist acts.  If the principalities and powers are arrayed against people of color, all the ringing declarations of colorblindness in the world will not secure justice for them.

Ruthless Righteousness

“At its core, America is a moral enterprise,” declares Rick Santorum.  For him politics is the vehicle for restoring America by establishing morality as he sees it.  Because governments “do not have the right to legalize moral wrongs,” that means aligning our law with his morality.  “God laid out right and wrong,” he declares. “We have the moral obligation that He has dictated for us.”  

Immorality in this perspective is typically seen as disease: “When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected.”  The moralists know where the contagious germs are, usually in sexual practices that deviate from their norms.  For Santorum homosexuality is close to bestiality, “Abortion is a great moral wrong,” and “contraception is not ok” –– in the eyes of the Catholic Church it’s “intrinsically evil.  This moralism is often fueled by the self-righteousness Jesus warned against, which declares ‘I thank thee Lord that I am not like this other man,’ a self-righteousness resulting in a division between people which is so radical it amounts to moral apartheid. 

The only cure for this contagion is cleansing, which inevitably means quarantining those most ‘infected.’  Physical removal is not possible but excluding those persons, like gays, from access to social benefits, like marriage, is the next best thing. Or because “contraception is not ok,” no woman shall use it. But that’s not ok. A federal judge overturned the California ban on same-sex marriage because you can’t deprive people of their rights just because you believe they are immoral. 

Where exclusion won’t provide ‘the cure,’ coercion can.  Having failed to ban abortion, the moralists try to force women to forgo it.  This strategy reached a new extreme in Virginia with State-mandated, unconsented to, transvaginal penetration –– which fits the federal definition of rape –– of any woman seeking an abortion.  This measure was so extreme its own sponsors backed off, but it reveals the ultimate destination of a moralism made into an idol others must bow down and worship.  To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, ‘extremism in the defense of morality is no vice.’  In fact, it is virtue itself. 

But there is another morality, and we have been graced with an exquisite example of it in the speech by Washington State Representative Maureen Walsh supporting legislation allowing gays to marry.

 “How could I deny anyone the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life.  To me it seems almost cruel.”  Her morality is one of sharing, born from her embrace of others whose happiness brings her joy and whose deprivation ‘seems like cruelty.’  She feels she has a stake in others’ welfare, which is exactly what we mean when we say they are our sisters and brothers.  That conviction puts us on the path to the “more perfect union” this nation was formed for.  And leads us down the path toward the bountiful life for others that is true righteousness.

Blessed are the fertilized

The public debate over contraception obsesses over the conflict between “policy and principle” and the fight between two behemoth institutions — church and state — while the moral position of the Catholic Church remains off the radar.  But the Church’s fixation on unobstructed fertility, together with the condemnation of those who practice birth control, needs to be scrutinized.

The vigor and dogmatism with which the Church asserts the ban using contraceptives is undercut by the fact that the practice played no role at all in the life and ministry of the founder of its faith.  Moreover, the Church argues for the prerogatives of religious conscience, but denies a similar claim for women, who disproportionately bear the burdens of its decree.  Its singleminded emphasis on procreation ignores both the physical suffering and risks to women — including death — from pregnancy.  Compliance for sexually active women also requires the crippling loss of their power to shape their own destiny by fitting parenthood into their total life situation.  For some women this loss condemns them to poverty.  A loving God responds to the suffering entailed in pregnancy and the sacrifice demanded by parenthood, but His representatives do not.  Having not borne the brunt of that suffering, they are less likely to give it the weight it is due.

Hearing on Contraception

A hierarchy governed by childless, infertile, celibate men who make no serious effort to listen to women’s voices cannot incorporate their concerns.  An institution like this inevitably taints its decrees with sexist bias.  A god that would sanction this exclusion denigrates his female children by denying them the moral capacity with which all persons are endowed.  The gap between the Catholic Church’s pronouncement and Catholic women’s practice dramatically underscores the different moral path followed by those who do bear the burdens of this doctrine.

The Church also disregards the impact its ban on contraception has on the welfare of the entire human community.  Population growth, fueled by the prohibition on birth control, puts huge stress on the resources that sustain and nourish life.  It contributes to famines and disease, and diminishes the quality of living for vast numbers of people.  The Church’s narrow focus on fertilization ignores the cumulative impact of its doctrine and damages the effort to relieve the stress on our increasingly fragile environment.  The loving God who values the life and welfare of His creatures calls us instead to live as responsible stewards in the interdependent web of life.  Birth control is pivotal in faithfully responding to this call.

The Church’s doctrine aims to govern the practice of sex.  But sex isn’t the threat that unchecked procreation is.  A doctrine that singlemindedly promotes uninhibited fertilization while ignoring the burdens it imposes and the collateral damage it inflicts, and which encourages us to neglect the sacred task of preserving our planet, has a dubious claim to morality.

Free to be fleeced

The Indiana Republican party, right in step with the party’s presidential candidates, have struck a blow for freedom –– the vaunted “freedom from unions” –– with their right-to-work law prohibiting unions from requiring dues from employees in a union shop.  This freedom is an illusion because these laws weaken unions and therefore undermine workers’ rights to a safer, fairer workplace.  The 25 year decline in union representation is a huge factor in the decline in wages, benefits, and safety for workers, all contributing to the erosion of the middle class.

These laws shift more power to employers by tapping into the compelling story of the individual’s heroic fight against the corruption of the “system,” or the group –– a story fostered by movies from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Dirty Harry to John Q.  In this narrative the individual is morally pure while, the group is a contaminating infection –– a storyline with roots in Protestantism’s revolt against the authoritarian corruption of the medieval Catholic Church.

The mainstream understanding of sin echoes this personal ethos.  The deadliest sins are all individual flaws –– overeating, coveting our neighbor’s whatever, and the one we’re likely to see more of this year –– envy of others.  The cure for these personal flaws is accordingly personal: confession and repentance issuing in dieting and other self-help measures.

But sin is not just an individual matter; it relentlessly infects relationships, embodied in the harm people inflict on one other.  The much cited economist Adam Smith aptly describes the exploitation in employment relationships:  “The pride of man makes him love to domineer…Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen.”

Employers exploit workers because they can, because they have the power to do it.  The vaunted freedom of right-to-work laws gives them a greater opportunity for it by weakening the countervailing power of unions (John Kenneth Galbraith’s concept).  By cutting off the oxygen of funds that support union work, the proponents of right-to-work laws aim to suffocate this counterforce.   Only through joining together in collective solidarity can workers assert their individual worth and dignity against the wealth and legal status of their employers.

Employers and their advocates honor the individual worker and her “freedom” in their rhetoric only to sanctify a system that degrades her in reality.  The greater vulnerability of workers that flows from these laws prepares the way for their victimization.  If people of faith care about sin we must concern ourselves with power, because an imbalance in power is an invitation to abuse.  Laws like these create a seedbed for sin.

Gingrich is right

When Newt Gingrich declared that poor children have “no habits of working and no one around them who works…unless it’s illegal,” we need to acknowledge both the sliver of truth in his statement as well as the grotesque falsehood it spawns.

There are, to quote the sociologist William Junius Wilson, “destructive behavior and attitudes in the inner city” and denying that fact “diminish[es] the importance of the environment in determining the outcomes and life chances of individuals.”  Our social environment shapes in a substantial way our individual selves as well as the course of our lives.  We are not the isolated, self-determining cowboys of Western legend; our lives are circumscribed or enriched by where we live, who lives near us, the wealth or poverty of our neighborhoods, and the services and other opportunities available to us. That reality can support and enrich us, or stifle and thwart us.  Acknowledging the social facts of life leads to a very different view of society and each other than denying them does.

Take Gingrich’s approach.  Ignoring the environment in poor neighborhoods frees him to view poverty solely as a question of personal character: the cause of poverty lies in the shortcomings of those who are poor (no work ethic), and he recommends solutions accordingly (child labor).  He wholly disregards what Wilson calls “the structural underpinnings of poverty”: the policies that helped create poor neighborhoods like decades of housing and mortgage discrimination by government and private institutions, exclusionary zoning in suburbs, elimination of federal assistance to impoverished communities (remember Model Cities?), highway construction, the virtual elimination of welfare via “reform,” and the outsourcing of jobs endemic in the globalized economy.

Focusing on character allows Gingrich to place responsibility for poverty on those who are destitute themselves.  The failure of his policy is therefore preemptively laid at their door.  In the guise of helping the poor, he is able to absolve himself or other policymakers of any responsibility for their situation.

Denying responsibility for the wellbeing of our neighbors in this way is not uncommon.  When we talk about those who lack adequate means, we routinely extract them from the world in which they live, a world very different from ours or policymakers’.  Without making the effort to keep the ‘structural underpinnings’ in view, it’s hard not to think of their plight in terms other than personal character.

If we are to recognize those in poverty as our neighbors, as our faiths call us to do, we must embrace their whole humanity, including their social reality.  That’s a matter of empathy, awareness, and education, all cultivating “sociological mindfulness” (the phrase is the sociologist Michael Schwalbe’s).  Social structures are often invisible, so keeping them foremost in our understanding requires discipline. But we can only honor our connectedness to those whose lives are different from ours by understanding the different worlds we travel in.




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