The Religious Right's Anti-Union Crusade

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 5:17 AM EDT

Wisconsin's ongoing labor battle has officially become a holy war. The Family Research Council, the evangelical advocacy organization founded by James Dobson, has been dipping into its war chest to defend Republican Governor Scott Walker's efforts to curtail collective bargaining for public-sector unions. FRC president Tony Perkins interviewed backers of Walker's anti-union bill on his weekly radio program and has tweeted his support for the bill, directly linking social conservatism with an anti-union, pro-business agenda: "Pro-family voters should celebrate WI victory b/c public & private sector union bosses have marched lock-step w/liberal social agenda."

The FRC's new political action committee, the Faith, Family, Freedom Fund, is airing ads on 34 Wisconsin radio stations in an effort to influence the April 5 judicial election that could ultimately decide the fate of the law. The ads target Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who's running against a conservative incumbent, David Prosser, for a seat on the state Supreme Court. If elected, Kloppenburg would alter the balance on the court in favor of Democrats, giving them the ability to invalidate the recently enacted ban on public-employee collective bargaining. "Liberals see her as their best hope to advance their political agenda and strike down laws passed by a legislature and governor elected by the people," say the ads. "A vote for Prosser is a vote to keep politics out of the Supreme Court."

The FRC's anti-labor campaign in Wisconsin is part of its larger agenda to meld fiscal conservatism with its family-values message. Its recent priorities have included fighting health care reform, new taxes on the wealthy, and President Obama's budget proposals. In recent weeks, Perkins has used his radio show to hash through small-government talking points with House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Tea Party caucus head Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who told him, "The bigger government gets, the smaller God gets." After exploring the value of union busting with Republican state Representative Robin Vos of Wisconsin last month, Perkins expressed "our thanks to you, as conservatives across the country."

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Perkins typically doesn't discuss the Biblical justifications for his ideas. (FRC did not return calls from Mother Jones.) However, some of the speakers at the "FRC University" online lecture series provide a clearer idea of the Biblical justifications for opposing limits on corporations and the wealthy. One recent speaker was Jay Richards, who edits a magazine published by the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank that the FRC describes as its "sister organization." His book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem, is a free-market treatise aimed at the faithful. In his talk he maintains that the sanctity of private property is the preeminent Christian value: "You might call it an idea being made in the image of God." 

"You get these funny quotes about people saying, well, 'Jesus was the first socialist,'" Richards explained. "If you read the Bible, this idea of private property is everywhere presupposed. There is not a 'Thou shalt believe in private property' sort of verse anywhere, but it's so fundamental that it's presupposed in two of the Ten Commandments. 'Thou shalt not steal' assumes that people have property that is legitimate and that should not be taken."

Another recent FRC lecturer offered a related interpretation of the Bible's calls for social justice. "Christ does not necessarily condemn the rich per se," said Mark Caleb Smith, the director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. But, he added, the good book does at times condemn the poor: "The Old Testament, especially in the Book of Proverbs, ascribes poverty to oppression, but also to other things like laziness, the love of sleep, the love of pleasure, the love of food, the love of wine. And so even Proverbs says, you know, sometimes you may be poor because of your behavior."

"Government-imposed social justice is unjust," Smith concluded, adding that Christians who support that notion are heretical and un-American. "For the Christian left, America is part of the problem. The American system of capitalism is part of the problem. They seek a fundamental reconstruction."

This strain of private-property-centric Christianity has deep roots within America's fundamentalist movement. For an excellent rundown of that history, check out Peter Montgomery's recent article in Religion Dispatches, "Jesus Hates Taxes." Among other things, Montgomery highlights an early Christian Coalition manual that interprets a New Testament passage in support of slavery to conclude that "Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God's plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man."

Of course, exegetical disputes with liberal Christians aren't the only reasons why FRC opposes labor unions. Not only do unions' economic principles put them at odds with evangelicals, so do their social values. A recent press release from Dobson's Focus On The Family, which was once conjoined with the FRC, complains that most political donations from labor unions go to Democrats and liberal social causes. "Over the past several election cycles, unions and their members contributed millions to fight against core American values—especially on issues of life, religious freedom and marriage." Still, explains a spokeswoman, "There are many good, hard-working Americans who are union members, but they would do well to consider whether union support of same-sex marriage and the taxpayer funding of abortion in government health care represents their interests."