They didn’t have the pizazz of the firefighters taking a lead role in the protests at the state Capitol last week.
They didn’t have the bombast of MSNBC host Ed Schultz broadcasting live from the Capitol lawn.
They didn’t offer the drama of the disappearing Democrats.
But throughout the amazing protests of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to strip most public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights, there were voices of religious leaders rising up to frame the moral issues in what has become a defining debate on economic justice not only for Wisconsin but for the nation. Those voices will continue as Walker and the Legislature wrestle with a raft of budget issues that have moral dimensions.
The voices range across the religious spectrum -- Catholic, Jewish, mainstream Protestant, evangelical Christian.
The Catholic archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, reminded lawmakers of the long-standing Catholic position supporting the rights of workers to unionize and he made this pointed observation: “Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”
The rabbi at Madison’s Temple Beth-El, Jonathan Biatch, cited Jewish tradition stretching from the Hebrew Bible through rabbinical teachings in the Talmud to contemporary theology that supports “fair and appropriate treatment of workers, as well as the right to bargain collectively.”
The church council at the First United Methodist Church, which stands just a block away from the Capitol, unanimously adopted a resolution noting the denomination’s clear stand in favor of both public and private workers to form unions and stating their opposition to Walker’s plan: “We do not consider this a partisan political issue but one of faith, morality and decency.”
Other religious leaders struck similar themes in a variety of public statements -- among them Lutheran Bishop Bruce Burnside, Methodist Bishop Linda Lee, and United Church of Christ Wisconsin Conference Minister David Moyer. Some 55 area faith leaders signed a statement from the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice denouncing Walker’s plan to curb collective bargaining. A few churches even offered a symbolic place of sanctuary for the absent Democratic senators.
The growing religious activism around the rights of workers will continue around the needs of the poor as Walker’s budget for 2011-13 is introduced early next month. Religious leaders will be reminding Walker and the legislators that the choices made in budgets have moral dimensions. Do they tilt the balance in favor of the wealthy and the powerful or those who live at the margins of society?
As the Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian who leads a national organization known as Sojourners, said in his blog last week, “When I read the Gospels, the narrative is clear: Defend the poor and pray for the rich. But our political leaders have taken to defending the rich, and if the poor are lucky, they might get a prayer.”
Wallis acknowledges that budget deficits also have moral consequences. And that is of course true, which is what makes all this such a difficult challenge for our nation.
The issue is not for people of faith to close their eyes to fiscal realities. The issue is for all of us who look to traditional religions for wisdom to keep in mind that those traditions offer useful guideposts about protecting workers from oppression and looking out for the most vulnerable among us.
Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. firstname.lastname@example.org