Many readers of the People’s World may wonder why anyone would use the words religion and labor in the same breath. Aren’t the two found on opposite sides? Doesn’t religion have to do with the world of ideas and labor with the real world? The truth is that in the United States today, religion and labor often appear to be irreconcilable.

This was not always the case. In the early 20th century, labor unions and religious communities would at times work together and help each other out. Some Christian communities even conducted alternative camp meetings where issues of religion and labor were addressed. In the aftermath of the Great Depression in 1929, several churches released official statements that questioned the principles of capitalism and demanded more democracy.  

Many of the world’s religions support justice and fair labor relations. Islam demands that workers not be deprived of their fair wages. The Jewish and Christian traditions also emphasize the importance of justice. Moreover, in the creation stories in the book of Genesis, God appears as a worker who crafts the world and who takes a break on the seventh day. The Gospels report that Jesus Christ was raised in a working class family, employed in the construction business.

If religion and labor share all these connections, why has religion often failed to support labor? Truth be told, religion has frequently been used to support the wealthy and the powerful. The empires of world history sought to shape religion to their own benefit. Christianity moved down that slippery slope when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century C.E.

Since in the United States religion is mostly funded by private donors, many religious professionals feel indebted to those who give the most money. As a result, religious communities are often dominated by the interests of wealthy donors, who influence not only day-to-day operations but also core beliefs and values. As the Roman Empire shaped God in the image of the emperor, today God is shaped in the image of CEOs and other economic leaders. Does this mean that religion, despite the many parallels and connections to labor, is lost for labor?

Unlike in Europe, many workers in the United States still support religious communities, especially in the South. For this reason alone, it is not inevitable that the interests of religious communities are dominated by the establishment. What if workers would make it a habit to speak out about their concerns and to organize in their religious communities just like they organize at work? Religious leaders who now feel that they have no choice but to support money and power might begin to listen. Some are more than ready for a change. They might even recall some lessons they learned as students about liberation theology and other religious movements that stand in solidarity with the people.

Such a move would be important for religion, as it would be enabled to reconnect with diverse parts of its heritage in ways that are now impossible. Religion would be free for the first time to explore its traditions and writings without having to please wealth and power.

Such a move would be important for labor as well, as it would gain allies that are in it for the long haul. It all depends, of course, on what the values and beliefs of the various religions truly are. But if it is true the last shall be the first, as Jesus repeatedly stated (see, for instance, Matt. 19:30 and Matt. 20:16), it might be worth it to take another look at religion.