Church and State ... and unions?

As the daughter of a public employee union member, I was inclined to look at this Associated Press story about religion and unions. Its headline in the USA Today version was "Churches wrestle with God's stand on union rights." I was hoping the story would discuss, well, churches wrestling with the issue -- or with each other -- but it was actually just a long, but shallow, look mostly at what a few mainline clergy have to say about collective bargaining battles:

Public-employee unions battling a spreading challenge to collective bargaining rights may no longer be able to count on the clout of a longtime ally -- the nation's mainline churches.

In Ohio and Wisconsin, the collective bargaining debate energized lobbying by sympathetic bishops and pastors, but unions lost those fights. Church leaders now fret that the volatile debate over budget-cutting may expand to target programs aiding the needy.

The involvement of religious leaders highlighted the intersection between faith and the marketplace as policymakers debated union and spending issues woven into the fabric of American society.

I have no idea what the last line ("the marketplace"? Hunh?) means but the story doesn't even really attempt to substantiate why mainline churches are being blamed for the loss in Wisconsin, much less why mainline churches may not have clout.

The story strings phrases together to make sentences, but the sentences sort of confuse me:

The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of backing the rights of workers to join unions, and many mainline denominations were deeply involved in supporting the U.S. civil rights movement.

These things are true but what do they have to do with the story? I don't think there's a debate about the rights of workers to "join" unions and this is not a story about the civil rights movement. Then a couple of professors weigh in that mainline religious backing is, on balance, helpful. You don't say.

The article is full of political terms. So we're told that Muslims "generally" support "fair pay" for teachers. That's campaign language, not fitting for an article about a seriously nuanced and difficult topic. Here's another example:

In Richmond, Va., Rabbi Ben Romer told a rally that anti-labor bills, cuts to programs that aid the poor and predatory corporate practices were an affront to Judeo-Christian teachings.

"I wonder what Jesus Christ would cut?" he asked.

I mean, isn't this article weird? First off, "predatory corporate practices"? What are those? I have no idea other than that they sound very bad and that all right-thinking people should oppose them, whatever they are. But come on, a rabbi wondering what Jesus Christ would cut? And no mention that this was an actual campaign by religious progressives, led by Jim Wallis?

Then we learn that even the congregations of these politically active folks are divided on the topic. Perhaps the only part of the article that dug even a little bit deeper was this story about one Ohio politician:

Ohio state Rep. Todd McKenney, an Akron-area Republican and former pastor at The Chapel, a nondenominational congregation, felt wrenching tension over the state's GOP-led effort to limit workers' union rights.

He wanted to be responsible with taxpayer money but was hearing from upset teachers and police. He prayed about it and backed the bill.

On balance, he said, "I have a strong biblical ethic that we have to be accountable with people's money and we cannot continue to tax people who have less money available than they did before."

The nuanced intersection between faith and policy was underscored by John F. Kennedy when he told ministers in 1960 that he was "not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."

See, that's some "wrestling." I'm sure people on all sides have done something similar. And it would make for an interesting article to find out more about these "biblical ethics" of which McKenney speaks. Also, though, the inclusion of the JFK quote was too funny to not include. What in the world is it there for?

The article then jumps from JFK to quotes from an atheist. And then ends. Who doesn't get mentioned? Well, anyone who has a slightly different take then the left-right political division the media love. Churches that don't get involved in politics are just ignored. I have a friend who is a Lutheran pastor in Wisconsin. He wrote one of the more interesting pieces I read about the Wisconsin fight in "How Christians Should Treat One Another in the Midst of Political Turmoil."

In The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, D.G. Hart explains how the media and academics tend to view Protestantism as those folks on the political left vs. those folks on the political right. Even apart from the obvious limitations of that approach, it neglects confessional Anglicans, Reformed, Presbyterians and Lutherans. This is a prime example of how that media framework marginalizes these people (of which I am one) and it's kind of frustrating. As my Lutheran pastor shows above, it's not that we don't have things to say about, for instance, the Wisconsin union battle. It just won't fit into the preferred "on the one hand, on the other hand" model that most reporters use.

But even if we take out my complaint about how politically unaligned Protestants are treated in this story, it still was weak. Mainline supporters of unions weren't given a decent chance to explain the religious basis for their views, why they think the campaigns failed, or whether they are somehow to blame -- as the lede suggested. And the religious folks who have come to different conclusions were mostly ignored.

This is a topic where finding a slightly more narrow focus could help bring out some intriguing religion angles worthy of news space.

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