Interview: Out of the Bedroom
Industrial: Cloak and Dagger
Legal: The Fantasy of Choice
Politics: Labor Pains
Economics: Economics and the Public Purpose
Corporate: House of Horrors
History: Clash Of Cultures
International: Childs Play
Culture: Folk You Mate!
Review: Last Holeproof Hero
The Locker Room
Contract With Australia
Out of the Bedroom
Interview with Peter Lewis and James Gallaway
You have come to Australia at an interesting time when the ties between the union movement and the churches are probably stronger than they have been in many decades around the issue of industrial relations. Has that been reflected in relations between the two movements in America?
There is a terrific organization back in the States that is called Interfaith Committee for Worker Injustice and that is what they do. They make linkages between unions and churches. On Labor Day they do sermons about labor and the AFL-CIO is very supportive of the group and that I think was the beginning of some new conversation. What is happening back in the States is that there are nine million American families with one member in the household who has got a full time job; works at it full time; works responsibly, and yet they are raising their children in poverty. That is 20 million kids in these nine million working families, and so one of our primary platforms in my movement is making work work.
Work has to work and work has to pay, and right now work in America doesn't work. If you polled Americans really across the political spectrum most would agree that if you work hard full time you shouldn't be poor. But many people are, so poverty back home - the heart of it really is working families. And even half those families, contrary to the stereotypes, half of them are married households, and they are still poor. So the notions like minimum wage - there is a big church campaign around living wage campaigns all over America.
The first time I met John Sweeney of the AFLCIO - he's Catholic and he's steeped in Catholic labour traditions - we talked for two hours about the bible; about labour and the bible; and afterwards the AFL-CIO published little study guide on labour in the bible - all the places in the bible that talked about workers and wages and employees and fair wages for good work. The break away movement led by Andy Stern is even more keen to link with the religious community. So I would say there are a lot of conn ctions around living wage campaigns, around what we call living family income, which is a combination of minimum wage increases, but also work supplements, like child tax credits and "Earn Income Tax Credit".
There are obviously vastly different traditions between the faith communities and the unions. What are the pitfalls that unions that are embracing religious networks for the first time? What are the things that we need to be sensitive to?
Unions and the Left generally have to be wary of what I call a secular fundamentalism. What I mean by that is kind of a disdain for religion and people of faith, and spirituality, even values conversations. That they don't like the Religious Right is fair enough - I don't like them either -but to forget that there is also a prophetic or progressive religious tradition . Certainly in the US historically all of our social core movements in our nation's past -the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor law reform, and of course of the civil rights movement - all were fuelled in large part by religion.
For example, the big miners strike in Virginia a decade and a half ago. We went down and covered that and the truth was that many miners were members of Pentecostal chuches down there and the untold story was all these pastors down in Virginia Coal Company were supporting the strike because these were their people. Yet the impression was that those unions are secular and church folks are different. The head of the Mine Workers Union, Donald Trumpka said that our coverage of the strike, was the best coverage that any politician did because we got the religious nuances of these workers.
Many of the people of faith have strong family moral values and that wasn't inconsistent with the radical economic populism. So I think respecting people of faith, respecting the values of religious people, and respecting the fact that religious people can be supportive - deeply supportive - of struggles for fair wages and healthcare and childcare and affordable housing and all the rest, but also accepting that they may not be with the Left on every other issue, particularly some of the family issues. For instance, Catholics are going to be very strong on fair wages but are going to be also concerned about the sacredness of life issues. So there has got to be a willingness to work with people where you can and not demand a political litmus tests on every issue. You need to find the common ground where you can and build alliances there.
The religious Right in your country has created a potent political machine and it is emerging in Australia too. What can we on the progressive side of politics learn from how they do business?
People can complain about the message of the Religious Right, but you have to admit they out-organise our side of politics. So we are taking organizing very seriously now. We take media strategy and organizing very seriously. The Right does both pretty well, so need to counter them and offer an alternative and offer a different kind of voice - and that is what we have been doing the last couple of years. We are really now directly competing with them in the media context and are often winning, or at least having our voice heard right alongside theirs.
What is an example of a recent campaign where you have matched them?
We just did a campaign this last year called "A budget is a moral document" and it was around the Federal Budget, and here was a budget where they were cutting taxes for the wealthiest and paying for it by cutting nutrition programs and healthcare and education for low income families. The religious hadn't organized campaigns around the Federal Budget before. It had been around abortion or gay marriage s. For a whole year we were organizing action alerts and letters and emails and visits and vigils and teach-ins and all kind of things, and we actually put religious leaders and grass roots faith-based organizers in the offices of the Senate and agricultural committee members who were going to write the budget on food stamps - nutrition programs. We actually turned the committee and saved all food stamps in the budget, and the whole budget we came very close to defeating. Dick Cheyney had to fly back to Washington fast to pass the budget. - I think he was off hunting or something that day! In the House we lost only by two votes. Now, we did lose the battle, except for food stamps, but the press was calling saying, we have never seen the religious community so mobilized around bargaining before. So it became a local church issue, and now we have another round of the new budget this year, and we are already panning another significant campaign.
During the Budget campaign after every vote I had minor Republicans even with me to say that they had voted against this Budget as Republicans, and they wanted the religious community to know that they were listening to them. We had 115 church leaders go to the steps of the US Capitol and basically we had a prayer vigil and a preach-in, and we were all arrested and taken to the DC jail - and the story got in 100 newspapers across the country. So here were churches engaged in civil disobedience over a budget.
What is your perspective on the state of progressive religion in Australia?
It has only been a few days and I have been around Australia a lot in the past, but not for about ten years, so I am just re-learning context and issues and I am watching the industrial relations stuff closely as it is unfolding. We have had some meetings here that were very broad, including not just the Uniting Church people which you would expect to be more sympathetic on social justice issues, but a lot of Anglicans, even Sydney Diocese Anglicans; a lot of Evangelicals; and a lot of Pentecostals.
Even some of the groups that people would think that might be associated with the Right, like the Pastor of Hillsong came to one of our breakfast meetings and we had a good conversation. I talked to the Family First people - the Senator and Party people - and when they come to Washington they want to meet with us and that is important, because the American religious Right would like to co-opt people like that. I talked to them about how the new IR laws would apply to a Family First agenda. You could do a whole Family First agenda around economic/equity/justice/fairness issues. And people were very open to that.
It is helpful here when you have someone like Tim Costello, from World Vision, who clearly is an Evangelical, but has such a broad reach in terms of his relationships and contacts and his public profile. So he can talk to Labor and Greens and the more moderate Liberals and he also is respected by Pentecostals and Evangelicals and the main line. You need people who can be multi-lingual if you will and can speak in different languages but keep their message the same and clear. And so, I think people like Tim are able to forge some pretty exciting coalitions that I have been part of these last couple of days.
Finally, what is your perspective on the Hillsong phenomena, which has grown spectacularly in the last 15 years in Australia. How do you see the Prosperity Gospel that they promote?
I just say flat out, the Prosperity Gospel is a heresy. It is a Christian heresy and you could only think of such a thing in an affluent country. The idea of that - and this is an American heresy - this is one of our worst exports. The idea that the rich are rich because of God's blessing and that the poor are poor because of their sins and failures is directly contrary to the biblical notions. What I found interesting, I did a talk at Sydney Uni with about 600 people - more than half under 30. Afterwards a lot of young people came up to me to talk, and I remember one of them said -clearly he was one of the many, many faith inspired young social justice activists who I meet all over the world. And I said where is your church and he said Hillsong. So I told Brian Hewson that I was meeting some of his young people at the session the night before, which was focused on poverty.
So I think a lot of old takes, old habits, old alliances, maybe need to be held loosely and maybe let go of and allow some new things to happen. Some new thinking to emerge, some new convictions. Certainly I felt that happening in the last few days, so rather than putting people back in old boxes, we need to help to create more space for them to move in some new directions. At the same time, you have got to take clear stands on issues. One stand that I take is that I have no time for or tolerance for the Prosperity Gospel. It is basically a Christian heresy.
To access more of Rev Jim Wallis's work visit Sojourners
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