The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.
Religion is at the heart of the Latina/o experience in the United States. It is a deeply personal matter that often shapes political orientations, how people vote, where they live, and the type of family choices they make. Latina/o religious politics—defined as the religious beliefs, ethics, and cultures that motivate social and political action in society—represent the historic interaction between popular and institutional religion. The evolution of Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and Catholic Social Action throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries illuminates the ways in which Latina/o religious communities interacted with movements for social justice.
Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.