Income and Wealth Inequality: Why Religion's Current Efforts Won't Cut It

When religious institutions turn their attention to legislation, legal codes, and regulations, they can effect change.

By Myriam Renaud|November 20, 2014

The only remaining, major, organized institutions in the US with enough scope and moral authority to launch efforts to reverse this country’s growing income and wealth inequality are the religions. Other institutions have waned; today’s labor unions represent only 7% of private sector employees. Delays matter: as income inequality increases, more children are going to bed hungry.
When religious institutions turn their attention to legislation, legal codes, and regulations, they can effect change. The successful (though ultimately doomed) Mormon-led effort to rally support in 2008 for California’s Proposition 8—an anti-same-sex-marriage initiative—is a recent case in point. The success of the civil rights movement is a less recent example.
The religions, however, have yet to mobilize or build coalitions to address income inequality, which has reached levels not seen in the US since 1913. Though it seemed that the disparity couldn’t worsen, it has (see NYT, Nov. 17, “Inequality, Unbelievably, Gets Worse,” in Resources below).
Currently, the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 150-million Americans, combined. Two living Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, appeared on Business Insider’s 2010 list of the twenty richest men, not just in the history of the US, but in the history of humankind. By contrast, in 2012, 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty, a significant increase from 37.3 million in 2007. Today, working class or working poor families suffer from significant levels (14.3% of households in 2013) of what is euphemistically called “food insecurity” (source: 2014 USDA Report).
To explain what is happening, some point a finger at globalization, but economist Emmanuel Saez finds that the US, the UK, and Canada have higher concentrations of income than other Western nations.
During WW II, the US had one of the most progressive marginal tax rates in the world, which kept income disparities narrow. However, in the mid-1970s, according to political scientist William Sewell, some of the people at “the top” began to systematically manipulate “the system,” including the tax code and other laws, to their advantage. The resulting tax breaks and changes in the law have redistributed wealth across the entire US population, funneling profits from economic growth toward the rich and away from the middle and working classes.
Economist Robert Reich writes that during the 1960s and 1970s, 9-10% of total income went to the top one-percent of Americans. By 2007, this share had risen to 23.5%. Even before 2008 and the so-called Great Recession, the wages of the average worker, adjusted for inflation, had been stagnant for three decades.
Where, then, are the religious denominations in all this? Martin Marty’s analyses in Sightings over the past several weeks suggest that the religions are in decline. Membership is dropping even in previously reliable powerhouses like the Southern Baptist Convention. Many “Nones,” Millenials, and others shun worship services and thus are hard to reach.
Another contributing factor, according to scholar of religion and class issues, Joerg Rieger, is that, although congregations demonstrate concern for "the poor,” their efforts are often limited to trying to “raise [them] up.” To provide assistance, conservative Protestant congregations favor charity while progressive congregations prefer advocacy. No doubt, charity and advocacy are admirable, but Rieger warns that neither is impacting the core of the problems.
Why? Because the central issue remains neglected, namely, the “causes” of increasing income disparity. By failing to ask about the dynamics that contribute to the exploitation of and “systematic pressures” on the working and middle classes, the religions fail to recognize the problem’s roots. As long as these root causes remain hidden, they remain unaddressed.
Another hurdle, Rieger explains, at least in progressive denominations, is a generally positive view of human nature. Members of these congregations prefer to believe that powerful politicians and wealthy corporate leaders can be convinced to become more sensitive to the needs of the poor. They’re not completely wrong. They’re not completely right either.
One-hundred-twenty-seven billionaires (108 are American) like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have signed the “Giving Pledge,” promising to donate at least half of their wealth to “address society’s ‘most difficult moral and economic challenges.’”
Nonetheless, through Congress’ 13,000 registered lobbyists, the affluent continue to wield their dollars ($3.5 billion in 2010) by investing in “campaign contributions, independent election expenditures, questionable gassroots campaigns, wooing legislators with golf tours, cruises, gifts to favorite charities and the like.” These investments enable the privileged class to influence the writing of legislation, to end or loosen existing regulations, and to orchestrate delays and inaction that benefit their bottom lines. Lee Hamilton, Director of Indiana University’s Center on Congress, says: “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that [money] can skew what takes place on Capital Hill toward the interests of those who can provide this money, and away from those who cannot.” 
The best way for denominations to reduce income disparities is by restoring the ability of ordinary Americans to impact tax codes, laws, and regulations. Will churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques build alliances and launch focused campaigns to level the playing field by ending the influence of money in politics?
To accomplish this, the religions’ middle-class and working-class members as well as supporters from the privileged class will have to join together to push forward an agenda to make it difficult, if not illegal, for lobbyists to give gifts or make large campaign contributions to legislators and to ban legislators from accepting such gifts and contributions.
Though scattered efforts like Moral Mondays are commendable (see Sightings, Nov. 13), before the religious traditions can make a real change, they must wake up to the reality of what has happened over the past three decades and unite to undo the trends responsible for ever more hungry children. 

Rattner, Stephen. “Inequality, Unbelievably, Gets Worse.” New York Times, November 17, 2014, The Opinion Pages.

Lubin, Gus. “The 20 Richest People of All Times.” Business Insider, September 2, 2010.

Congressional Budget Office. “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007.” Report, October 25, 2011.

Nord, Mark, Alisha Coleman-Jensen and Christian Gregory. “Prevalence of U.S. Food Insecurity Is Related to Changes in Unemployment, Inflation, and the Price of Food.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Report No. 167 (June 2014). “More Than 46 Million People Turn to the Feeding America Food Bank Network to Make Ends Meet: ‘Hunger in America 2014’ Study Reveals the Current Face of Hunger.” August 18, 2014. “New Data from USA Shows 49m People (16m Children) are Food Insecure in the US.” September 3, 2014. “Hunger in America: 2014 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts.” Hunger Notes. Last updated July 2014.
Saez, Emmanuel. “Income and Wealth Inequality: Evidence and Policy Implications.” Director’s Lecture Inaugurating the Roman Family Directorship of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, October 9, 2014. Regenstein Library, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. The lecture is available on YouTube:
Sewell, William. Response to Emmanuel Saez’s lecture. October 9, 2014. See citation for Emmanuel Saez.

Reich, Robert. Beyond Outrage: What Has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and our Democracy, and How to Fix It. Expanded Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

Rieger, Joerg. Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence. New Approaches to Religion and Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Rieger, Joerg. “Religion, Class, and Denominationalism in the US.” Sightings, November 6, 2014.

Stein, Ben. “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning.” New York Times, November 26, 2006, Business/Your Money.

Hamilton, Lee. “How To Moderate The Power of Lobbyists.” Center on Congress at Indiana University Commentaries, October 13, 2011.

Walker, Corey D. B. “Thinking Religion and Democracy in Dark Times.” Sightings, November 13, 2014.
Image Credit: smikeymikey1 / shutterstock.

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Author, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the Managing Editor ofSightings and was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. Her research focuses on philosophical theology, the concept of God, and the Global Ethic ratified by the 1993 Parliament of the World Religions. She is completing a dissertation entitled,Constructing a Moral God in an Age of Globalization and Contingency, and is co-editing, with Joshua Daniel, a collection of essays tentatively called, God's Role in the Moral Life: Philosophical, Theological, and Religious Accounts.


Myriam Renaud

Author, Myriam Renaud (PhD '18), is a former editor of Sightings, and has written about religion for The Atlantic, The Conversation, Religion & Politics, The Globe Post, and more. She is co-editor, with William Schweiker, of Multi-Religious Perspectives on a Global Ethic: Toward A Common Morality (Routledge, 2020). Currently, she is at work on an academic monograph, Toward a Moral God and a Humanizing Theology, and a general audience monograph, White Evangelicals in America.