Janine Giordano Drake
One of my research seminar students stayed after class this week to ask me what seemed like a simple question: "When did big churches become so conservative on economic issues?" I smiled and said that there were quite a few scholars who have explored this question, and he could find answers in the eighteenth century, or the nineteenth century, or the twentieth century, or the twenty-first century. I began making him a list of books he could check out, but the student looked at me like I hadn't really answered the question. "Were Christians pro-capitalist in the early twentieth century?" he wanted to know, as he is also taking another class on the period. "Yes, they were," I said. "But they were also far more pro-labor than many might recognize today. Many still held onto the possibility of a moral capitalism, where all workers would be paid a living wage." As I said this, I remembered what a foreign idea this is to those of us who have only seen the last 20 or 30 years of American political and religious history. Many undergraduates today are too young to even have "FDR democrat" grandparents.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, this Sunday before Labor Day would have been celebrated as "Labor Sunday" in many denominational (proto-"mainline") parishes. That is, pastors would take time in their preaching to note their churches' support for workers struggling for better wages and working conditions. It was designated in 1907 as a kind of American Protestant feast day. Presbyterian Rev. Charles Stelzle, whose job at the time was to increase workers' participation in Presbyterian churches, designed the holiday in cooperation with the Chicago American Federation of Labor. He hoped the holiday would get pastors to research the specific struggles of workers within their locality and then verbally note Jesus' solidarity with their struggles. In this way, Stelzle dreamed, anti-capitalist workers might be more friendly with the churches and stop accusing them of supporting and perpetuating the reign of Mammon in America.
The following year, Stelzle joined other "Social Gospel" pastors within the newly-formed Federal Council of Churches and promoted the holiday across all the affiliate denominations. The holiday exploded in visibility when it was grounded in a set of principles on the subject of labor which the FCC now endorsed.
As indicated in their widely distributed, Social Creed of the Churches, Federal Council clerics now officially agreed to certain principles concerning "industrial problems." They said that Churches "stood for" the rights of all to "self-maintenance," an economic safety net, workplace safety protection, reasonable work hours, a day off per week, equal justice for all, and not only a living wage, but "the highest wage that each industry can afford." Yes, they were in favor of capitalism and firmly anti-socialist. But, they also believed that maximizing dividends to shareholders was absolutely not the Christian way to go about business. Early twentieth century Christian, economic conservatism was so different from what we know of today.
Our own Elesha Coffman has written an informative and thought-provoking blog post on the holiday here. But, as Elesha notes, few people have heard of it these days. Elesha says she only knows of it currently celebrated in United Church of Christ churches. I only know about Labor Sunday through my research on Charles Stelzle and the Federal Council of Churches.
For those who haven't read Jennifer Burns' wonderful biography of Ayn Rand, myriad internet memes and late night comedians remind us that Ayn Rand did not believe in God. She believed in the principle of self-interest as insistently, and illogically, as others have believed that Jesus was God incarnate. Somehow, however, her ideas displaced those of the Christian economic conservatives who came before her. Stephen Colbert tells us that Paul Ryan, who calls himself a practicing Catholic, fully endorses Rand.
How we went from one pro-capitalist Christianity to the other in the last 100 years fascinates me. As I tried to explain to my student this week, endorsing capitalism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries has meant something different. Christians used to meditate on the pernicious Seven Deadly Sins a whole lot more.