Card Check Religion

In light of the news that Senator Mark Pryor (D, Wal Mart), played the central role in killing the #1 piece of progressive legislation — scrap that, the #1 piece of legislation, left or right, with real potential to turn the American economy around — it’s worth revisiting the role religion — at least, as Pryor understands it — played in his actions; We published this a few months ago; it’s more relevant today.

The most important progressive legislative initiative Obama pledged to support, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), may be dead, and Democrats helped kill it. Why is this a religion story? Because one of the turncoats is Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a self-described “faith-based Democrat” who told me in an interview that his Christian views shape his every decision, a commitment he said gives him a uniquely bi-partisan — or maybe trans-partisan — perspective: “Jesus didn’t come to take sides,” Pryor explained, “He came to take over.”

Sharon Smith at Counterpunch explains EFCA succinctly (and fairly, though she’s open about which side she’s on):

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would allow unions to win recognition once a majority of workers at a given workplace signs a union card, rather than allowing managers to force their workers to suffer through a drawn-out union election by secret ballot. Employers typically prefer to force a union election because it allows them to delay the decision by months while they fire union supporters and force their workers to endure “captive audience” meetings with managers who threaten to close down the company or move elsewhere in the case of a union victory.

EFCA would also compel recalcitrant employers to bargain with unions, by imposing binding arbitration if there is no agreement reached 120 days after a union wins recognition. This is necessary because roughly half of all new unions never get a contract due to their managements’ refusal to bargain in good faith

I first encountered Pryor a few years back when I was researching a story about Battlecry, a militant right youth evangelical movement. Its leader, Ron Luce, explained to me that regulating the market made a mockery of God’s invisible hand, and that unions were a form of idolatry, a substitution of worldly solidarity for the only fellowship that matters, that of Jesus Christ. Luce, such a fierce opponent of “pornography” — a category in which he included not just Playboy but R-rated movies and magazines such as the one I was working for at the time, Rolling Stone — that he was willing to bend his free market fundamentalism in order to ban it all, proposed Wal-Mart, which censors material sold in its stores, as an example of a company following a godly path even without government help. Then he surprised me by naming as one of his chief allies Senator Pryor from Arkansas — Wal-Mart’s home state.

When I called Pryor to ask him about Luce’s claim, he volunteered a deeper association as his real Christian involvement: He was a member of the Family, a group I just happened to be writing a book about at the time.

Luce is a bit of a buffoon; the Family has been fighting organized labor since its formation as a union-busting coalition of Christian business executives in 1935, at the height of the New Deal. The Depression, they believed, was a punishment from God for the nation’s turn toward socialism. By the late 1940s, their membership was equal parts business and political elite, the leadership of the National Association Manufacturers — deeply involved in lobbying against EFCA today — and free market fundamentalists in Congress who united to roll back many of the rights of labor to organize won during the New Deal. Corporate greed wasn’t part of their calculations–at least, not explicitly. They believed then–and now–that business tycoons must be free to lead with their hearts, unbound by regulations or contracts with union. They called their approach “biblical capitalism,” an economic theology I discuss on with Will Wilkinson from the conservative Cato Institute, who names it for what it really is: “self-interest by proxy.”

Pryor, a past organizer of the group’s National Prayer Breakfast, is no radical deregulator. A conservative Democrat, he’s still a Democrat, which is to say, he votes along party lines when doing so won’t seriously challenge the interests of big business. The Family doesn’t dictate his politics. But the group does shape them. He credits the organization with helping him to see that the wall between church and state has grown too high and encouraging him to view ostensibly secular issues in religious terms. “People separate [religion] out,” the group’s leader, Doug Coe, preaches. “’Oh, okay, I got religion, that’s private.’ As if Jesus doesn’t know anything about building highways, or Social Security. We gotta take Jesus out of the religious wrapping.”

Then again, maybe the matter isn’t theological for Pryor, who inherited his seat from his father. Nobody ever accused him of being the sharpest knife in the drawer, a fact Pryor actually offered in his own defense when Bill Maher asked him to explain his belief in the “literacy” of the Bible (sic) and his anti-evolution views for his film Religulous. Maher can be a bully, and his understanding of religion lacks subtlety, to say the least, but when Pryor, stumped, declares “you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate,” even Maher seems to feel sorry him.

Pity the poor man no more. Today, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which declares the Employee Free Choice Act a “firestorm bordering on Armageddon,” awarded Senator Pryor its Spirit of Enterprise Award.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).