Religion, Consensus, and Conflict in Wisconsin

Paul Harvey

A number of good pieces have analyzed the conflict over public unions and collective bargaining in Wisconsin from religious history perspectives. Some, such as Kim Bobo over at Religion Dispatches, have reproduced mainstream Protestant liberal and Catholic support for the workers, while our own Heath Carter has weighed in here more skeptically on the same issue. From the other side of the divide, Julie Ingersoll has investigated the justifications in Christian Reconstructionism for union-busting, and Diane Butler Bass explains Governor Scott Walker's evangelical surety (you Cheeseheads have Colorado Springs to thank for that, apparently, yet another gift we've given to the world). Over at Immanent Frame, John Boy's "The Cross and the Cheeseheads" summarizes much of this discussion and provides some other links as well.

But here is what I think is the best short piece on the religious angle of the story I have read on this: Paul Grant, "Neighbor Against Neighbor in Wisconsin," a succinct and eloquent essay on the passion about public order and public works that underlies this conflict (hat tip to Janine Giordano Drake and Seth Dowland for calling my attention to it). Just a brief excerpt:

In the 1870s, waves of Scandinavians and Germans came, motivated this time by poverty. These were the builders, the people who brought their Northern European instincts for consensus-building and cooperation to bear on their projects. It is because of them that Wisconsin is stacked with credit unions, farmers markets, co-ops of every variety, native grass seed exchanges, strong public libraries, and impressive music departments in tiny rural high schools. Largely Lutheran and Catholic, the bedrock Wisconsin way of doing culture is to blur the boundaries between public and private . . .

Why does this matter? It helps explain the anger of the moment. We are seeing a collision of distinct traditions of political conversation—one grounded in mainstream American traditions of brinkmanship, and another drawing on midwestern traditions of consensus-building. It is not insignificant that Governor Walker was born in Colorado Springs to a Baptist minister: he represents national political cultures.

It's often pointed out that Wisconsin gave us both Robert LaFollette and Joseph McCarthy, so this "brinksmanship" is certainly not entirely new; and of course serious labor conflict in Wisconsin and elsewhere is not new either. Nonetheless, Grant's piece helped me understand something of the way this movement has combined passion and order, and also something more about the religious motivations undergirding Governor Walker and his supporters.

Update: Janine Giordano is working on her own piece on the Wisconsin issue as well as a response to Grant, so with any luck that will be up here soon!


Heath said…
Paul, thanks for sharing this essay. Grant's focus on the local is helpful in light of Wisconsin's distinctive political culture, though he does not entirely persuade me that "It is first and foremost a local fight reflecting local cultural change." I heard a great talk last Friday by Joe McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown who's coming out shortly with a new book on the 1981 PATCO strike. McCartin argued that the attack on public unions represents in part a premeditated, highly-coordinated, multi-state campaign by the victors in the 2010 midterm elections. This latter point is supported by much of the buzz surrounding the Koch brothers' financing role. Another of McCartin's most interesting points was that this current manifestation of anti-unionism is far more extreme than anything Reagan, a one-time union leader and resolute supporter of collective bargaining, ever dreamed of. Those interested in reading up on his take on the Wisconsin situation can do so over at the New Republic:
Paul Harvey said…
Heath -- thanks. As a TNR subscriber I read McCartin's excellent essay previously (and directed other people to read it too -- it's a little OT for this blog, is why it's not pointed to in this post), and I totally understand the point you're making here.

Ultimately, I see these points as complementary, as Grant's piece focuses on certain Wisconsin traditions. These are now confronting a nationally, politically-motivated, Koch-brother financed campaign. Anyway, I see McCartin and Grant as two portions of a larger story that involves both local and national elements. Thanks for the comment.