God and the New Deal

So the Democrats are having trouble with the politics of cultural traditionalism? So what else is new?

To be sure, the gap in the electorate between the observant and the secular is widening. But it's just one part of a larger cultural rift that the Republicans have long realized (as far back as Richard Nixon) is central to their success. Since Nixon's announcement that he stood with the “silent majority” against the noisy protesters, the Republicans have practiced a form of identity politics, championing the more traditional culture of Middle America against its putative cosmopolitan threats. Indeed, magnifying those threats has become the linchpin of the Republicans' presidential-election strategy.

Even before the Republicans learned how to fully exploit it, however, the tension between modernity and tradition had long been a challenge for Democrats and liberals -- as far back, in fact, as the early years of the New Deal. Then, the tension occurred chiefly within the Democratic base, for the party that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his lieutenants inherited was largely a collection of traditional, hierarchical, and distinctly unliberal fiefs, whether big-city organizations in the North or segregationist machines in the South. And yet, Roosevelt and his liberal lieutenants—and even the socialist organizers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, who provided the shock troops for building and cementing the New Deal -- understood that they could not proceed without winning some support from traditionalist communities that had often been, and would often be, arrayed against them. Roosevelt, CIO founder John L. Lewis, and other New Deal architects were building a majoritarian politics, which entailed reaching out to and compromising with traditional institutions in ways that liberals would do well to reflect on today.

There was, in fact, a clear religious component to the New Deal. No group was more central to the Roosevelt coalition than America's urban Catholics, whose Church looked favorably on the New Deal's tilt toward the poor but also at times looked askance at the secular federal bureaucracy the New Deal erected to help those poor. After all, the New Deal substituted secular state and labor institutions -- Social Security, welfare, and polyglot industrial unions -- for an earlier order of church- and ethnic-specific charities and not very diverse craft unions, none of which was remotely capable of dealing with the crisis of the Great Depression.

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Support for the new deal was so overwhelming among working-class voters that it's easy to forget how many of the pre–New Deal working-class organizations were ambivalent about key elements of the New Deal itself. In 1933, as Roosevelt's administration was just setting up shop, William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, the AFL, testified against government relief, voicing an ambivalence shared by Church and local Democratic leaders who were accustomed to delivering relief themselves. In that year, a conflict over that very issue arose in Chicago. With national unemployment standing at greater than 20 percent, the newborn Federal Employment Relief Administration (FERA), headed by Roosevelt lieutenant Harry Hopkins, had become the nation's federal unemployment and relief agency, providing survival money to millions. Chicago Archbishop (later Cardinal) George Mundelein understood full well that the Catholic charities had nowhere near the funding required to see Chicago's Catholics through the economic collapse, but he argued that FERA funding going to Catholics should be channeled through the archdiocese's charities.

This ran counter to FERA policy everywhere else in the nation, not to mention to the separation of church and state. But Mundelein and Roosevelt were old friends, Mundelein was very close to Chicago's Democratic Mayor Edward Kelly, and Hopkins was an arch-pragmatist. Mundelein's request was granted.

The most celebrated and notorious Catholic of the New Deal era was radio priest Charles Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly of his day. On his weekly nationwide radio broadcast, the Detroit-based Coughlin was a staunch FDR supporter during the initial years of Roosevelt's presidency. He approved of the first phase of the New Deal, the National Recovery Act, which rejected laissez-faire capitalism and endeavored to replace it with a managed economy that balanced opposing social interests -- echoing Catholic economic doctrines propounded by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum and by Pius XI in his 1931 Quadragesimo Anno. By 1935, however, Coughlin had split with Roosevelt over the issue of America's recognition of the World Court (the very kind of issue that today's talk-show fascisti also love to demagogue). The cosmopolitanism of the New Deal and the new CIO was increasingly unbearable to the anti-Semitic Coughlin, and by 1936 he was attacking “Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt” in every broadcast.

Initially Roosevelt sought to keep Coughlin in the fold, sending such prominent New Deal Catholics as Joseph P. Kennedy and Frank Murphy, who'd recently been mayor of Detroit and was soon to become governor of Michigan, to try to rein him in. But Coughlin had made up his mind, and as the 1936 election drew near, he was calling FDR a “liar” and a “communist.”

Coughlin's hardcore following was real, and a decade and a half later, its ranks swelled by anti-communism and the Cold War, it reconstituted itself as Joe McCarthy's base. But in the '30s, Coughlin was no better than the second-most persuasive voice on radio; the most persuasive was Roosevelt himself. Establishing a bond with working-class Americans through his “fireside chats,” his relief, pension, and labor policies, and his role in bringing big-city voters into a governing national coalition, Roosevelt was hugely popular with the Catholic laity, as Coughlin's listeners made clear to the priest through hundreds of thousands of irate letters whenever he attacked FDR. Catholics knew that Roosevelt championed their cause as no president before him had. Of the 214 federal judges appointed by FDR's three Republican predecessors -- Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover -- there were only eight Catholics. Roosevelt made 196 judicial appointments; 51 were Catholics. The laity understood that one of the things that was new about the New Deal was that they were included.

But Roosevelt also had allies within the Catholic hierarchy, and he made sure to showcase them whenever possible. Foremost among these was Monsignor John A. Ryan, a professor of political science and moral theology at Catholic University and the longtime director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Council. Inspired by Rerum Novarum, Ryan helped create a distinctly Catholic brand of American economic progressivism. (His dissertation, completed in 1906, was titled “A Living Wage.”) In 1936, in an address he called “Roosevelt Safeguards America,” Ryan took to the airwaves to denounce Coughlin's attacks on the president. Ryan also delivered the invocation at FDR's 1937 and 1945 inaugurals.

Ryan's labor Catholicism probably claimed the allegiance of several million adherents during the New Deal years. Among the most prominent were New York Senator Robert Wagner, who authored both the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, and Philip Murray, the first president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the second president of the CIO. There were other prominent Catholics among the CIO's early leaders, but there were just as many who were secular socialists, communists, and anti-clericals -- and among the CIO's organizers, the secular leftists constituted a clear majority. In recent decades, historians have given short shrift to the role of anti-clericalism in shaping the '30s left, or at least the upbringing of '30s leftists. But the Church in the pre–New Deal first decades of the 20th century had been vehemently anti-labor and anti-socialist, a fact impressed upon many of the children who went on to build the CIO by their radical parents. Julius Emspak, the first secretary-treasurer of the United Electrical Workers, once recalled how his mother had forced a gravedigger to pry the cross off of his father's coffin.

But whatever the secular and socialist inclinations of the CIO's organizers, they knew that to organize America's factories in the 1930s meant organizing Catholics; a plurality of CIO members were Catholic. Cultivating the Church -- certainly the clergy who identified with Ryan's social Catholicism -- was critical to building the CIO. In Chicago, Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Shiel became a champion of the Packinghouse Workers; in Buffalo, Father Charles Maxwell was an adviser to the USWA; in Pittsburgh, Father Charles Rice defended the unions and became a confidante of Murray's. Delivering the benediction at the CIO's first convention, Rice declared, “A victory for labor in its struggles for decent conditions is a victory for Americanism and Christianity.”

As historian Michael Kazin has noted: “The CIO clearly liked to advertise its ties with the Church. The political imprimatur helped to blunt the sting of red-baiting attacks on labor, especially by foes with a pious reputation. At every national CIO convention from 1938 to 1946, the opening invocation was given by a priest or bishop from the host city. No Protestant or Jewish clergymen enjoyed anything like the prominence that such priests as Shiel [and] Rice … had as speakers at labor forums and writers for union publications.”

The CIO, in turn, asserted a selective commonality of purpose with the Church. “Once humanity becomes the measure of both organized religion and organized labor, we can push forward together toward the good life,” proclaimed a CIO pamphlet on religion. “Both labor and religion put their faith in the people, believing in power with not over them.” The priests who helped build the CIO -- most of them affiliated with the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), founded by some of radical Dorothy Day's acolytes in 1937 -- initially defended the unions against the red-baiting attacks to which they were constantly subjected. “Never let the red herring of communism fool you” into turning anti-union, Rice cautioned the steelworkers. By the 1940s, though, and particularly with the end of the Popular Front and the advent of the Cold War, the ACTU leaders became often the most vehement opponents of the communists in the CIO unions -- some in principled coalition with the Reutherites in the battle for the United Auto Workers (UAW), others engaging in the very kinds of over-the-top red-baiting they had warned against a decade earlier.

During the '30s, it wasn't only Catholic clerics on whom the CIO relied to help organize factory workers. The first president of the UAW, Homer Martin, was a onetime Baptist minister who, in the words of UAW historians Irving Howe and B.J. Widick, “spoke with other-worldly fervor; his language was colored by Biblical phrases; no other man could pierce to the hearts of Southern-born workers as he could.” Martin thought nothing of announcing at one NAACP meeting in 1937 that, like Jesus Christ, “I come to you tonight representing the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited people, both colored and white.” Martin's eccentricities appalled his fellow UAW and CIO leaders, but his appeal to the southern whites who'd come to Michigan to work in the auto plants was undeniable -- and useful. After he'd been ousted as president, he endeavored without success to set up a rival auto union, complaining, as Coughlin did, of the dominance of left secularists in the UAW. By then, though, the UAW had become too vibrant and important an institution to the autoworkers for them to turn against it for ideological, much less theological, reasons.

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There's a historical lesson in this for today's liberals: At the high-water mark of 20th-century liberalism, both the liberals who built the New Deal and the radicals who built the industrial-union movement cultivated and made marriages of convenience with traditionalist institutions -- the Church above all -- when it served the larger cause. They never doubted the need for such alliances; they never hesitated to build them when they could.

And they took pains to avoid offending Catholic opinion, even at the risk of betraying their own deepest principles, if offending that opinion would weaken or split their unions. Not a single CIO union passed a resolution in support of the Spanish Republic during its civil war with the Catholic fascists of Francisco Franco. Though some of the socialist and communist leaders of those unions had comrades who were fighting in Spain, they knew that any such resolutions would bring down the wrath of the Church, which they feared their unions could not easily withstand.

However biased or outlandish the traditional institutions of the New Deal era may now seem, today's progressives could be forgiven for wishing they had them back. Most of today's evangelical churches have little if any record of involvement in social-justice causes; their idea of religion is the “thou shalt not” strictures against sex and tolerance that make up the worst of the Old Testament. The Catholic Church has not abandoned its social-justice tradition -- look at the living-wage coalitions in cities that have enacted such ordinances and you'll frequently find the Church -- but following the lead of a more conservative Vatican, the Church has relegated its concern for justice to a secondary position while emphasizing traditional family and gender roles.

In the heart of traditionalist America, meanwhile, the economic populist impulse and the demand for social justice still live. On election day in the Bush state of Florida, 71 percent of voters backed an initiative that established the state's first higher-than-federal minimum wage.

For now, though, the struggles for social justice in red-state America are few and far between. A massive drive to organize Wal-Mart could change the face -- and perhaps the political color -- of the South, but it is a task of daunting vastness. Campaigns to organize the hotel workers of Orlando, Florida, the casino workers of Mississippi or the janitors of Houston and Miami are more plausible, as are living-wage drives in southern and midwestern cities and campaigns against outsourcing. Such efforts could offer a way to reach out to traditionalist churches and traditionalist voters with whom Democrats have few points of connection these days -- not the hard-right evangelicals who are America's most die-hard Republicans but swing voters who don't cotton much to either cultural or economic elites.

It may be that most evangelical churches will remain stubbornly indifferent to such ventures, and that it would take a new depression to fully revive the Catholic Church's concern for economic justice. Cracking the Republicans' red-state lock will be anything but easy, but joining red-state voters and endeavoring to enlist their churches in a common struggle or two (or more) would be a good way to begin. Liberals have certainly done it before.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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