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Editor’s Note: Today (June 5) Wisconsin voters head to the polls in a special recall election, where they will decide either to keep Governor Scott Walker in office or to replace him with Democratic challenger Tom Barrett. Momentum for the recall election was ignited by a controversial budget bill, which eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Timed with this vote, we decided to release our Wisconsin piece from The States of the Union Project, in which Christopher Chapp, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, analyzes the state’s history on labor, religion, and policy.

The Archbishop’s letter, sent last February to state legislators on the finance committee, probably caught many Wisconsin Catholics off-guard. The fierce debate over stripping collective bargaining powers had so far been largely framed in economic terms: Were labor rights and a balanced state budget mutually exclusive? Citing Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate as evidence, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki made the case that Wisconsinites ought to view the conflict through a religious lens. “Hard times,” Listecki wrote, “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”

Nor was Listecki’s letter an isolated event. United Methodist Bishop Linda Lee wrote an open letter to Governor Walker asking him to reconsider his position on collective bargaining. The Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin organized a prominent display at the state capitol. Religious leaders in Illinois offered refuge for Democratic state senators who left the state in order to prevent a quorum from voting on the bill. Priests, pastors, and rabbis marched on the state capitol, chanting, “Tell me what religion looks like? This is what religion looks like.”

This was not the posture voters in the state were accustomed to hearing from their clerics. In recent years, religious fault lines in Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, have generally been drawn with respect to the so-called “culture war” issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, sex education, and the like. In 1997, voters mounted a campaign to recall Senator Russ Feingold over his support for abortion rights. In 2009, religious groups played a vocal role in opposing the Healthy Youth Act, a bill that mandated teaching comprehensive sexual education to teens. (That bill, initially signed into law by then-Governor Jim Doyle, has since been repealed by Governor Walker.) In 2006, a Catholic bishop in Madison, Robert Morlino, caused a stir when, just days before voters went to the polls to cast ballots on a same-sex marriage amendment, he recorded a 14-minute message that warned any opposition to the Church’s official position would be considered “an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences.”

Political scientists, myself included, have expressed doubt over the extent to which social issues affect the outcome of elections. For the vast majority of voters, pocketbook concerns are often more important than their priests’ mandates. That said, there is little question that religious considerations play an important role in Wisconsin politics.

Still, the opposition of many religious leaders to the elimination of collective bargaining rights is not the stuff of a culture war. Instead, the connection between religion and workers’ rights reflects a much older—and often forgotten—tradition in Wisconsin politics. While it is important not to overstate the relationship between religion and early labor reforms (Milwaukee Socialists and Catholics regularly butted heads), the recent Wisconsin protests do not mark the first time that labor and religion have formed important alliances in the state. As early as 1894, groups like the Church and Labor Social Union in Milwaukee worked to bridge the gap between organized labor and clergy, framing the goals of labor in largely religious terms. From the early twentieth century forward, religion was often deeply intertwined in politics as Wisconsin took on a leadership role in national progressive reforms.

Much of this was due to the influence of faculty at the University of Wisconsin who were heavily influenced by the Social Gospel movement. Faculty promoted “the Wisconsin Idea”—the concept that knowledge generated at public universities would work toward the common good of the state. This idea had a prominent influence on progressive policymakers. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Social Gospel faculty like Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons took an active role in promoting progressive and pro-labor reforms within the state. Other types of influence were less direct. While serving as governor, the progressive leader Robert “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette got a visit from his former University of Wisconsin professor John Bascom—a teacher he called “the guiding spirit of my time.” Bascom told LaFollette, “[Y]ou will doubtless make mistakes of judgment as governor, but never mind the political mistakes so long as you make no ethical mistakes.” Now these forces might seem to make strange bedfellows, but a century ago, progressive politics, a Christian outlook on economic justice, and the role of the public university were all joined at the hip in Wisconsin.

From progressive reforms of the early twentieth century to recent changes in collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin is a state that has long considered itself a laboratory of democracy. Religion has nearly always played an important role in policy change (and policy opposition). Complex cross-cutting alliances have enabled religious interests to mobilize behind policies on both the political Left and Right, which speaks to the religious diversity of the state itself. According to the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, Wisconsin’s Christian population is almost evenly divided among America’s major Christian denominations. Catholics, who make up 29 percent of the state, are slightly more populous in Wisconsin than in the nation at-large. Twenty-four percent of Wisconsinites identify as evangelicals, 23 percent belong to mainline Protestant traditions, and 16 percent are unaffiliated. The state is roughly divided into thirds among residents who regularly attend church, attend sometimes, and those who do not attend at all.

This religious variation has given rise to a decidedly mixed collective political outlook. In the definitive study of Wisconsin electoral behavior, political scientist Robert Booth Fowler locates the origins of the Wisconsin electorate’s political sensibilities in ethno-religious affiliations that have deep historical roots. (Protestant Dutch communities, for instance, have been reliably Republican since the 1860s, and many Polish Catholic communities have voted Democratic for generations.) These divisions persist to this day within a political culture that is far from monolithic. The Pew survey reveals a state highly divided on issues of abortion, gay rights, and the role religious institutions should play in government and public affairs.

Perhaps this diversity of opinion should not be surprising. Wisconsin, after all, sent both Victor Berger and Joseph McCarthy to Washington. Berger was the nation’s first Socialist member of Congress, and his relatively secular social democratic vision makes for a stark contrast with the anti-Communist crusading of Joseph McCarthy, whose hyperbolic rhetoric promoted a vision of a Christian state in direct opposition to “godless communism.” Wisconsin also advanced the country’s first worker compensation law in 1911, but a century later eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees. Perhaps best illustrating the state’s political divisions, Wisconsin is currently one of only a few states with not only a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but also a law providing same-sex couples with domestic partner benefits.

In terms of Wisconsin’s public sector unions, religious arguments on both sides of the aisle continue. Shortly after Archbishop Listecki’s news-generating open letter, Bishop Morlino penned an epistle of his own in the Madison diocese’s Catholic Herald. There the Bishop noted that the Wisconsin Catholic Conference had officially taken a neutral stance on the matter, arguing that, unlike issues like abortion and euthanasia, reasonable people could disagree on union rights. Indeed, it appears Archbishop Listecki’s remarks on behalf of collective bargaining have had little effect on bringing his flock to consensus. Recent polling conducted by Charles Franklin at the Marquette Law School shows that 61.7 percent of Wisconsin’s Catholic voters favor “limiting collective bargaining for most public employees.” More than 80 percent of Catholics favor “requiring public employees to contribute to their own pensions and pay more for health insurance.” Among Catholic voters, Scott Walker enjoys a 57.3 percent approval rating and a 17-point lead over his Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett.

Governor Walker—a self-identified born-again Christian and the son of a Baptist minister—is no stranger to religious arguments in politics. Indeed, he sees a clear connection between the two, noting at his inaugural prayer breakfast, “The great creator, no matter who you worship, is the one from which our freedoms are derived, not the government.”

Despite this, the governor has largely avoided directly rebutting religious pro-labor arguments, instead re-framing the debate with an appeal to cultural issues. Shortly after signing the controversial budget bill into law, Walker made waves when he refused to defend the state’s domestic partner registry in court. In November, controversy was again ignited when Walker announced that the tree in the state capitol—which had been called a “holiday tree” since 1985—would instead be called a “Christmas tree.” The renaming sparked protests at what is usually a conflict-free tree lighting ceremony. However, the issue can be seen as a strategic move on the part of the governor, shifting religious policy justifications from collective bargaining onto more familiar turf. Now there is a new turf war, in the form of a high profile recall election. With a narrowly divided electorate, political power in the state may ultimately rest with the side that can best invoke faith to justify their policies.

Christopher B. Chapp is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His forthcoming book is entitled Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns