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What Would Jesus Do?: The Christian Labor Movement Revitalizing America

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Shawn Fain, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW), has made a significant impact by blending his Christian faith with union activism, leading to a historic agreement with the Big Three automakers. Fain's approach, which involves citing scripture and emphasizing faith in collective action, reflects a revival of the Social Gospel movement in America. This movement, which emerged in the late 19th century, advocates for social reform through religious principles, challenging economic inequalities and unethical business practices.

The Social Gospel movement, reinvigorated in contemporary times by leaders like Shawn Fain and others, is fundamentally about applying Christian ethics to address societal problems, particularly those related to labor and economic inequality. This movement, rooted in the late 19th century, emerged as a response to the harsh realities of industrialization and the vast disparities it created. Leaders of the Social Gospel sought to bring about social change through the lens of Christianity, advocating for the rights of workers, better living conditions, and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Their message was clear: religious faith should directly inform and inspire efforts to improve societal conditions, especially for the marginalized and impoverished.

Shawn Fain, President of the United Auto Workers

In the modern context, this movement's resurgence is particularly noteworthy against the backdrop of increasing economic disparities and the decline of labor rights. Figures like UAW's Shawn Fain represent a new wave of social and labor activists who draw on their faith to advocate for significant changes in labor practices and economic policies. Their efforts have led to tangible results, such as the historic agreement reached with major automakers, which not only signifies a win for labor rights but also represents a moral victory in the context of the Social Gospel. This blend of faith and activism underscores a broader trend where religious principles are being used as a foundation for advocating social justice and economic fairness.

Prominent figures like Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, Rev. William Barber II, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond are notable for their alignment with the Social Gospel's principles. They advocate for various social issues, such as healthcare, minimum wage, and poverty, using Christian teachings to guide their perspectives. This approach contrasts with the more individualistic and capitalist-aligned views of some other Christian movements.

The revival of the Social Gospel is also a counter-narrative to the more dominant stories about religion's role in politics today, particularly the narrative around White Christian nationalism. While the latter often garners more media attention, the Social Gospel's focus on social justice, poverty alleviation, and labor rights offers a different view of how faith intersects with public life. This movement shows that Christianity can be a force for progressive social change, challenging systems of power and advocating for those who are most vulnerable.

As America grapples with issues like wealth inequality, labor rights, and social justice, the principles of the Social Gospel offer a compelling framework for addressing these challenges, rooted in a combination of religious conviction and a commitment to social reform.

This is a summary of a piece written by John Blake for CNN. Read the full article here.


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