Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unions and the Separation of Church and State

9/22/2011—Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles and former labor organizer, wrote a piece on September 18 about religion and labor. ("Case Against Church-State Separation From Unlikely Source") (hyperlink unavailable: go to

Laarman was discussing an article from the Journal Democracy entitled “The Church of Labor” written by Lew Daly, the author of God’s Economy, a 2009 book that argued in favor of the faith-based services initiative of President George Bush.

Daly has bigger fish to fry this time. His argument is that separation of church and state is connected to a predominantly Protestant ethos of individualism that is fundamentally hostile to all collective action, including unions. According to Laarman, Daly presents a “critique of the intertwining of free-market liberalism/Social Darwinism and ur-Protestant ideas about individual responsibility… .”

Daly’s basic idea is that rights based liberalism is a part of this individualist worldview. Unions, on the other hand, are founded out of a different view of the world—one that is based in human solidarity.

To this point, Laarman is in basic sympathy with Daly. He parts company over the connection Daly draws to the separation of church and state. In Daly’s prescription, legal and financial support for churches is also supportive of other associations, such as unions. Here is a quote from Daly’s article:

“In corporatist thinking, natural associations—including the family, religious bodies, occupational guilds and trade unions, and various other communal structures—should be legally enfranchised in their corporate nature, empowered as both subjects and creators of public policy, and protected as vital instruments of the common good.”

I can see why Laaarman is skeptical about support for churches leading to support for unions. Daly is describing a proposed cultural change and such changes do not proceed in a linear, cause and effect way. You might well end up eviscerating the separation of church and state and doing nothing at all for unions.

For me, Daly’s thinking and Laarman’s response raise two issues. First, just why is it that American Protestantism is so individualistic? Perhaps the greatest 20th century Protestant thinker, Karl Barth, was a Christian socialist and that has been a powerful movement in European history.

The second issue is cultural. Capitalism seems to require and foster individualism. This individualism may be destroying the notion of a common good and enshrining selfishness. How is that to be changed?

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