Political Hay

The Minimum Wages of Sin

Long ago, we're now told, the Prophet Amos came out demanding a higher minimum wage for American workers.

By 1.15.07

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Quoting a biblical prophet, liberal mainline church officials, whose constituencies are mostly upper middle class Protestants, are demanding that Congress raise the minimum wage.

"The Prophet Amos proclaims, 'Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream' (5:24, NRSV)," read a letter to Congress organized by the National Council of Churches' "Let Justice Roll" program. "We are morally outraged by the number of people living in poverty in the United States, and believe that now is the time to give hard-working low-wage workers a raise and take the first step toward a true living wage for America's workers.

About 1,000 religious officials who signed on evidently agreed that the current minimum wage is "is unconscionable and immoral, as the wealth of our nation continues to be built on the backs of the working poor." They insisted that the legislation must be "clean" of any other proposals, such as a repeal of the estate tax, or special tax breaks for businesses.

Having already passed in the House, the bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 almost certainly will pass the Senate in some form. Probably President Bush will sign it. This would be the first increase in 10 years, and to most of us in middle class America, $7.25 an hour still does not sound like a lot.

But note the tone of utter moral certainty from the prelates. The various Episcopal and Lutheran bishops, presbyters, and Methodist functionaries who signed on, along with an ecumenical smattering of others, would never and probably could never proclaim with such certitude any traditional articles of their own faith such as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, not to mention moral teachings about homosexuality or abortion. On these issues, they would likely boast of their "diversity" of opinion.

But the minimum wage is an uncompromising "justice" issue. A separate and similar letter jointly composed by Jewish and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) officials likewise quoted the Old Testament when demanding the government-mandated wage increase: "We take to heart the words from Deuteronomy and that command us to open our hands to the poor and moreover, to help others establish self-sufficiency."

Perhaps still smarting from their controversies of earlier this year, when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overturned its divestment policies against Israel after strong complaints from Jewish groups, the Presbyterians probably saw this letter as a mechanism for a new Presbyterian-Jewish alliance. The minimum wage has become a plank for interfaith cooperation!

The religious endorsers of the minimum wage bill strike a pose that has become old hat for the Religious Left over the last 40 years. Every proposed increase in the powers of the state to regulate the private economy, along with every proposed expansion in the welfare system, is by definition a religious imperative for which compromise is unacceptable.

While priding themselves on not being "fundamentalists," these liberal religious groups pin their grand political and economic claims on fragmentary Scripture texts upon which they build very expansionist definitions. Somehow, we are to believe that the Old Testament prophets were insisting that Israel construct a larger, regulatory state that guaranteed material care by the government of all people from cradle to grave.

The Old Testament prophets, of course, devoted most of their fire to demanding that their Hebrew theocracy stamp out all idolatry and sexual immorality, causes in which the modern Religious Left obviously have little interest. The New Testament demands that individual believers give away their own belongings to the poor and to the church. This, too, is often unpalatable to the religious left, which is primarily interested in giving away other people's wealth.

Perhaps more banal is the Religious Left's utter lack of nuance in its understanding of the state and the economy. For liberal clerics, increasing the material wealth of the poor is simply a matter of national will and consequent legislation. Raise the minimum wage, institute socialized medicine, mandate federal day care, tax away the "excess" profits and earnings of the "rich." Let the elites of Washington, guided by the wisdom of the today's successors to the Old Testament prophets, completely redistribute the nation's wealth according to the dictates of supposed biblical "justice."

"As people of faith, we believe there is no better way to urgently address the poverty that afflicts so many low-wage working people and their families than by raising the minimum wage," explained former United Church of Christ President Paul Sherry, who now heads the NCC's "Let Justice Roll."

If raising the wages of the working poor is so simple, and without negative consequences, today's prophets of justice should explain why they do not demand a minimum wage of $20 or $30 rather than a mere $7.25. And their frequent insistence that 5 or 10 percent annual increases in federal social welfare spending are scandalously insufficient when God demands at least twice that amount also begs the question: why not just insist that the state seize all private wealth for its equal redistribution?

The Religious Left, like the secular left, has largely given up on overt socialism per se. Instead, they push for greater state powers and a reduced private economy by making their legislative demands under more politically palatable banners, such as environmental or racial justice. But can the state ever be too large or too powerful? Except in the case of police powers and national security, the religious left will never acknowledge this is possible.

It is facile to claim that the Scriptures provide direct commands on how governments should be run. But Christian tradition does offer some warning that human nature is complex, that government, like other human institutions, has a proper and limited sphere of authority, and helping the poor means more than employing the state's coercive powers to appropriate and redistribute the wealth of others.

The liberal clerics who demand that Congress increase the minimum wage by two dollars an hour may or may not be correct in the morality of that specific issue. But their theological reasoning, that God with certainty always demands a greater regulatory state, is thin indeed.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.