Inequality is a Life Issue: Reflections from Christian Social Teaching

By: Heath W. Carter

September 1, 2020

Economic Justice and Universal Basic Income: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

I grew up in the long shadow of the Moral Majority, where common sense dictated that, in the political realm, true Christians prioritized “life issues”—read, abortion—over all else. One of the problems with the paradigm, ironically enough, was that it vastly underestimated the scope and gravity of contemporary threats to human life.

Case in point: Inequality is, unequivocally, a life issue. In county after county across the United States, life expectancy varies by more than twenty years, depending on the census tract in which you happen to reside. It is no coincidence that some residents of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, are expected to live 86 years and others only 62. Such jaw-dropping disparities—in this case, nearly a quarter-century—are strongly associated with socioeconomic variables (in particular education, income, and race). And the worst may be yet to come: Climate change will almost certainly exacerbate these lethal trends, especially across the South and Southwest, where energy costs and mortality rates are expected to soar.

Given this general backdrop, the specific path the coronavirus has taken is nothing if not predictable. The poorer the person, the more likely they are both to contract COVID-19 and to die from it. Here again not just class but also race is highly salient, with black Americans being more than twice as likely to die from the virus as their white counterparts. 

The good news for Christians grappling with inequality today is that, for all the headlines it has grabbed in recent decades, the religious right, with its circumscribed moral imagination, is not the only relevant precedent. A rich tradition of social Christian thought and action offers an alternative model of faithful witness in the public square. Its late-nineteenth century pioneers were poor farmers and wage-earning laborers, women’s suffragists, and black freedom fighters. They did not often join hands and fight together, but they shared in common certain key intuitions, insisting, for example, that God was on the side of the lowly and the oppressed. They were ordinary believers, not systematic theologians or professional ethicists. But the movements they built inspired a new vein of Christian social teaching, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and the ecumenical Protestant “Social Creed of the Churches” (1908). These documents represented in many ways a moderate accommodation of more radical Gilded Age dissent. Their endorsements of the rights to organize and to earn a living wage were groundbreaking, but they were still not enough. 

So grassroots believers continued to hold leading Christians’ feet to the fire. By the early 1930s, a new encyclical and an updated social creed had further honed the churches’ moral vision. Meanwhile, architects of the New Deal—themselves steeped in social Christian ideals—were trumpeting it as a latter-day realization of the Sermon on the Mount. This view resonated in congregations across the land, where many cheered new opportunities for labor, not to mention the advent of social security. But for all the advantages of the emerging welfare state, it fell far short of the Kingdom of God, as black and brown Christians, especially, were quick to remind. The New Deal’s many galling concessions to Jim Crow helped to ignite the massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements of the mid-twentieth century, led by the likes of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Cesar Chavez. By the early 1970s, when the campaigns they galvanized began to crest, the United States was, on many counts, more equal than it has ever been, before or since. 

Now, just a generation later, that heady moment is a distant memory. With the welfare state diminished, the manufacturing sector hollowed out, private-sector unions decimated, and the gig economy expanding apace, should believers inspired by the great cloud of social Christian witnesses who have gone before join the growing call for a universal basic income?

There is no question that this proposal pushes against the grain of certain longstanding social Christian emphases. The dignity of labor was one of the rallying cries of the early trade union movement, as it marched against the rapid destruction of the ancient guilds, with their proud traditions. More than a century later, this same theme was at the heart of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speeches, delivered in spring 1968 in Memphis. “All labor has dignity,” he proclaimed to a crowd of striking sanitation workers. The adoption of a universal basic income would not require a wholesale rejection of this perennial value, but the tensions are significant enough that the Vatican was quick to clarify exactly what Pope Francis did and did not mean when he lifted up the idea of el salario universal

At the end of the day, such tensions need not decide the question and, given our current predicament, UBI deserves a long look. The truth is that social Christianity has always been a living and even fractious tradition, home to vigorous debates over the right methods and end goals alike. The one constant has been a conviction that participation in the long fight against death-dealing inequality is not optional. Christians are called back into that fray every time they pray, as Jesus taught, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

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