UAW President Shawn Fain Is Reviving That Old-Time Religion: Christian Radicalism

Mixing Bible verses with class-struggle rhetoric, Shawn Fain’s pro-labor Christianity has baffled some in the media. But the UAW leader stands in a rich tradition brimming with scripture-quoting union workers and labor prophets like Eugene Debs and MLK.

UAW president Shawn Fain joins members as they go on strike at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant on September 15, 2023. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

On the eve of a historic “stand-up” strike, United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain delivered a speech that sounded like a sermon. “One of the first things I do every day when I get up is crack open my devotional for a daily reading, and I pray,” he revealed. “I chose to be sworn into this office on my grandmother’s Bible. I have it here with me today. . . . I’m proud to have inherited my grandma’s Bible and her faith.”

The Good Book was no mere prop in Fain’s hands. In his remarks, he quoted Matthew 17:20–21, in which Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Fain used these words to dramatize the winnability of the battle ahead — vowing, “Yes, these corporations are mountains, but together we can make them move” — before appealing directly to the UAW’s rank and file: “So I have to ask you: Do you have faith? Are you ready to stand up together and move that mountain?”

But for Fain, the Bible is more than a source of feel-good inspiration. It boasts a sharp economic justice edge, leaving no doubt that God takes sides in the perennial struggle between the haves and have-nots. He insisted that the UAW’s is a “righteous fight” and commented, “There’s one more piece of scripture I like,” citing Matthew 19:23–24, in which Jesus declares, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Fain went on to offer a hard-nosed interpretation, mapping the gospel’s stark contrast between the Kingdom of God and hell onto the inequitable landscape of the modern United States:

Why is it easier to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? I have to believe that answer, at least in part, is because in the Kingdom of God no one hoards all the wealth while everybody else suffers and starves. In the Kingdom of God no one puts themselves in a position of total domination over the entire community. In the Kingdom of God no one forces others to perform endless, backbreaking work just to feed their families or put a roof over their heads. That world is not the Kingdom of God. That world is hell. Living paycheck to paycheck, scraping to get by? That’s hell. Choosing between medicine and rent is hell. Working seven days a week for twelve hours a day, for months on end, is hell. Having your plant close down and your family scattered across the country is hell. Being made to work during a pandemic and not knowing if you might get sick and die, or spread the disease to your family, is hell. And enough is enough.

A sermon indeed.

A Long Line of Labor Prophets

Fain’s strikingly theological bent has flummoxed some in the media. A recent Politico feature mused, “There’s something of a paradox to Fain. On one hand . . . [he] comes across as a traditionalist, talking of his God and faith. . . . At the same time, Fain comes across as a militant, channeling Bernie Sanders as he bashes ‘the billionaire class.’”

But as anyone acquainted with the longer histories of Christianity and labor knows, there’s no paradox here. When Fain quotes scripture in the service of the UAW’s fight, he is tapping into a deeply pro-labor vein of Christianity, one that we haven’t heard much about in recent years but in its heyday helped galvanize powerful working-class movements.

Jesus and the rich young man by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889. (Wikimedia Commons)

For countless workers throughout American history, traditional faith and labor militancy have gone hand in hand. In this wider context, Fain emerges on the national scene not as a paradox but as the latest in a long line of labor prophets who have stoked the flames of egalitarian faith and held big business’s feet to the fire.

From the labor movement’s earliest days, workers insisted that they organized because the Bible told them so. Union-friendly newspapers brimmed with scriptural quotations. The Gospel of Luke supplied some perennial favorites: “Woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation” (6:24) and “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (10:7). Perhaps none was as scintillating as the fifth chapter of the Epistle of James, which reads, “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted. . . . Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:1-2a, 4).

Workers found particular inspiration in the life of Jesus Christ. Terence Powderly, the longtime leader of the Knights of Labor, which in the 1880s amassed a formidable coalition that cut across lines of skill, race, and gender, always insisted that he took his cues from a Nazarene carpenter. “Christ was right,” Powderly declared. “He spoke for the poor, worked for and among the poor, and died for the poor. . . . His efforts were directed against the money changers, or bankers, of his day, against the crafty few who stole the land from the many and if there were railroads at that time would have been demanding that the rights of the people be respected by their presidents and directors.”

Eugene Debs delivers a speech in the early 1900s. (Wikimedia Common)

Eugene V. Debs, a champion of labor who, in the mid-1890s, became an avowed socialist, held Christ in similarly high regard. In the spring of 1896, Debs gave a rousing speech to workers in Chicago, and the next day’s Tribune reported, “He said if Christ was on earth today he would be on the side of striking garment workers. He said he opposed the church of today, not because it was Christian, but because it did not advocate the principles Christ taught.”

In the eyes of Powderly, Debs, and their allies, such convictions did not amount to a “gospel according to labor.” They were part and parcel of the gospel, period. And by the end of the Gilded Age, pushed by mass working-class organization, even the leaders of many Christian institutions began to acknowledge as much.

At one juncture, some members of the Catholic hierarchy lobbied the Vatican to condemn the Knights of Labor, but the overwhelming participation of lay Catholics within the organization made that proposal untenable. In fact, within five years of the Knights’ peak, Pope Leo XIII moved in the opposite direction with his promulgation of Rerum Novarum. The landmark encyclical reiterated the Church’s explicitly anti-socialist position, but granted major concessions to labor: most importantly, in an era dominated by laissez-faire capitalism, Rerum Novarum insisted on workers’ right to organize and to earn a living wage.

In the early twentieth century, workers broke through on other fronts, too, as pro-labor teachings gained at least some sanction within Protestant denominational institutions and seminaries. A rising generation of ordained clergy allies, many of whom had first been called to serve in hardscrabble urban neighborhoods, played a pivotal role in this process.

In 1907, Baptist minister and professor Walter Rauschenbusch, a veteran of Hell’s Kitchen and a key figure within surging Christian socialist circles, published a sensational book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. It brought new attention and prestige to ideas that had long circulated at the late nineteenth-century grassroots. “If we serve mammon,” Rauschenbusch declared, “we cannot serve the Christ.” The following year, an upstart ecumenical organization, the Federal Council of Churches, adopted a Social Creed calling the churches to stand, among other things, for “a living wage as a minimum in every industry” and “for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.”

“All of God’s Children”

Pro-labor faith continued to gain ground well into the twentieth century. Frances Perkins, who made history during the New Deal era as both the first woman to serve in the president’s cabinet and the country’s longest-serving labor secretary, was steeped in an economically egalitarian Christian tradition. On her watch in the 1930s and 1940s, working-class movements won watershed victories, with Congress passing the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act in 1935 alone.

During that same era, as historian Jarod Roll has documented, Pentecostal revivals in the Missouri Bootheel region fueled working-class radicalism and cross-racial organizing campaigns. Meanwhile, radical Christians such as Dorothy Day and the Reverend Norman Thomas pressed Catholic and Protestant institutions, respectively, to get outside of their comfort zones and more vigorously support working-class movements.

In the Cold War era, few gave a more eloquent voice to this tradition than the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In the spring of 1968, more than a decade into a public career that intertwined radical faith and mass political action, King rallied to the side of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. When he stood before a throng of strikers and supporters at Bishop Charles Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ, King proclaimed, “You know Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor.”

King went on to offer his own interpretation of the story of Dives (the rich man) and Lazarus: “Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. . . . Dives finally went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”

The crowd was on its feet cheering wildly even before King reached the climax of this riff, declaring, “And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If American does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.”

So when Shawn Fain talks about his militantly pro-labor Christian faith as something he inherited from generations past, he is not making it up. His baptism of the UAW’s current strike requires no new revelation. Fain’s call is for the revival of an old-time religion, one which, if it finally had its way, would bring justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.