Party Platforms, God, and Work

Religion is not territory we’ve covered in any real detail here on our blog. The Democratic Party Platform, however, has raised an interesting intersection between work and religion that deserves some attention. Last week, the Democratic Party opted to alter the language of its 2012 Party Platform to remove the word “God” (though they have since reinstated the language). This created an immediate stir among Democrats and Republicans, and elicited an highly critical response from Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (his comments on the removal of “God” are at the beginning of the video). What this debate reveals is the particular way in which the Democratic platform describes, in the same breath, individual labor, and religion.

For those of you who followed the conventions of both parties, you are no doubt familiar with the Republican refrain (in response to critiques of their stance on abortion) that few actually read or even follow the party platform. As the LA Times noted, Bob Dole announced on the eve of his own nomination that “he hadn’t bothered reading the GOP platform and wouldn’t be bound by whatever it said.”

Luckily, the good folks at the University of California Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project do care about what is said in the party platforms and have very helpfully posted Republican Party Platforms nearly back to the party’s founding in 1854 and Democratic Party Platforms back to 1840 (the party’s modern iteration was founded in 1828). As the graphic below shows, the advent of the use of the word “God” in party platforms is an almost wholly post-World War Two phenomenon. There are a few exceptions – one mention in the Republican Platform from 1908, and several mentions in the Democratic Platform before 1940.

Source: American Presidency Project 

There are a couple of fascinating trends related to this. One is that the use of “God” in party platforms is relatively new. Another is that its been unevenly used. A third is that the current Republican Party Platform is far more religious (by several factors) than any previous GOP Platform.

But perhaps most interesting trend is that the most recent iterations of the Democratic platform all tie religion and work explicitly:

2008 – “We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”

2004 – “The great promise of America is simple: a better life for all who work for it. No matter who you are, where you come from, or what you believe, as an American, you live in a land that offers you all the possibilities your hard work and God-given talent can bring.”

2000 – “Democrats are committed to building an America in which no neighborhood or town see joblessness and shuttered businesses commonplace or inevitable, and where no families or young adults surrender their God-given right to work hard and live the American dream.”

1996 – “Our vision is simple. We want an America that gives all Americans the chance to live out their dreams and achieve their God-given potential.”

Appending religion to work is not at all a new idea, even if the Democratic Party only recently discovered the idea. Reading these snippets of their platform immediately took me back classical sociologist Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” thesis, which posited that Reformed Protestantism encouraged hard work and frugality, thus providing a cultural bedrock for the development of capitalism.

What I find particularly striking, though, is how much focusing on “God given talents” obscures the structural forces behind a host of work related issues: educational attainment, the availability of vocational training, the growth of bad jobs, the decline of clear career paths for less educated workers in the “new economy,” unemployment and its effects on future employment, and racial, gender and other inequalities in hiring and pay. These ideas are not fully absent from the platform or the convention (example – Lilly Ledbetter’s speech at the convention). But that debate now risks being obscured by the presence of “God” in the platform.

We have mentioned Arne Kalleberg’s latest book Good Jobs, Bad Jobs several times on this blog, and his work perfectly encapsulates what “Platform-gate” misses. This is not fundamentally a debate about individual talent, will, or effort. There have been deep structural changes (which Kalleberg documents in detail) that greatly impact individual outcomes. One example is that, over the ten period from 1999 to 2009 (roughly covering the period between the 2000 political campaign and President Obama’s first year in office), median individual yearly wages have changed dramatically. What is more, these changes have not been even; they are stratified by both race and gender. Yet business labor productivity (measured in output per hour) has grown steadily over the same time period. Indeed, labor productivity has increased markedly since the early 1970s, even as real hourly wages have declined.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2012 Statistical Abstract
and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The connection between median individual wages and labor productivity is the subject of quite a bit of research, and there does seem to be a statistical relationship between individual wages (split by gender) and labor productivity. There are strong correlations between wages and productivity between 1999 and 2009, with a negative relationship for men (meaning that productivity rose and wages fell) and a positive relationship for women (productivity and wages both rose). Yet even here, where there seems to be a positive story insofar as women’s wages rose, the gap in median individual wages remains quite large.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2012 Statistical Abstract
and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

In short, in spite of appeals to God given talent, there are serious social issues at work here that are determining much of the variation in individual achievement and labor output. By focusing our attention on the simple presence (or lack thereof) of theological references in Party Platforms, we miss the intricate way in which religion and work are being ideologically intertwined. What is more, this connection obscures the social underpinnings of economic changes, where talent and effort have resulted in large gains in productivity but have not been rewarded, on the whole, by employers.

Chris Prener is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Northeastern University. He studies issues relating to work, first responders, cities, and health disparities. You can follow him on Twitter (@chrisprener) and Tumblr.

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