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Pundits Blast Unemployed; Faith Leaders Silent

Twice in the last four years I have spied Benton Harbor, Mich., a once flourishing factory town that has suffered all manner of ills: bad leadership, racial conflicts and more.
Its downtown is ghostly. The most devastating blow occurred when Whirlpool abandoned it and its workers some years ago.

A recent Wall Street Journal article has a déjà vu inspiring headline: “As Whirlpool Exits, Job Hunts Begin.”

This time the victim is Fort Smith, Ark. It shows “Grit Among Loss” and has “A Knack for Marketing Area’s Low Costs to Manufacturers.” Applause, please, seconded by tears.

James R. Hagerty tells how in 1962 the city held a parade welcoming Whirlpool, but now the company announced it will close in mid-2012, stranding more than 1,000 workers, noting “sluggish demand” in the American market.

Note: “The fault wasn’t with Fort Smith or its workers,” a Whirlpool spokesperson insists. “It is a great workforce.”

Stop here: what follows is not an analysis of markets and management; better informed people can and do comment on such. The interest here is in “the great workforce” that is left behind in much political discourse but more often thought of among religious commentators. What goes on?

Listen to the rhetoric of those political commentators who blast the unemployed and underemployed and go on to criticize any mention that governmental moves might help change things.

Listen to political campaigners on cable news networks or in close-ups on National Public Radio or read them in newspapers, and hear them deceive.

They couldn’t be more clear: “Everyone in America can get a job and can succeed. Look at me! I did!”

Then think of Benton Harbor and Fort Smith and another city any day. Stories featuring welfare cheats, as they have been called for a half century, are also true: there are (perhaps) millions who work the system and do not seek employment. But they don’t deserve all the space in stories about the economy.

At this point in columns like this, one faces the question: where is the voice of the churches, of all the faiths, to protest such inhumane distorting if not outright lying?

Much is going on; much is being said. But the sympathizers and empathizers don’t get the big forums in pop culture as they go about analyzing, speaking, motivating, cheering, organizing, often in little-noticed local efforts.

Where are the denominations? They are not and maybe never were effective instruments for making judgments and mobilizing, though one can make the case that they have had their innings in the Civil Rights and anti-war struggles, and they can keep the issues alive for their constituencies.

Independent national magazines speak up, but they reach only thousands.

Thus The Christian Century cover banners “The Case Against Wall Street” by an eloquent Gary Dorrien. In liberal Protestant style, his article comes associated with an editorial introduction by John Buchanan, who raises a few credible reservations.

And there is Commonweal with David O’Brien’s cover, “Economic Justice for All?” which mournfully revisits the Bishops’ Economics Pastoral on its 25th anniversary.

The Tea Party and Occupy movements are hardly effective fronts for analysis or providing direction. But they get their hearing as voices of frustration.

They may be officially “secular” but they echo the more and more “religious” voices. In political as in religious ethical talk, it’s “the economy,” but not only that.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.