In the years to come, Americans “will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact.” These words sound like those of entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang whose campaign includes a proposal to give every American citizen 18 years and older a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 a month.
Instead, the words were voiced more than 40 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr. in the last chapter of Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. He wrote what turned out to be his final book in 1967 while working on the Poor People’s Campaign.
King proposed a middle path between capitalism and communism – a path that valued both the individual and the community. He called into question the low wages of American workers. He argued there was “nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public … nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen.”
Then he took his proposal one step further, clarifying without regard to one’s employment status, “There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum – and livable – income for every American family.”
Poverty, King asserted, revealed a lack of compassion in American society. It revealed a focus on war at the expense of peace.
The same year King’s ideas were published, Robert Seymour, pastor of the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, preached a sermon entitled “Is the Guaranteed Annual Income Moral?”
“Poverty, King asserted, revealed a lack of compassion in American society. It revealed a focus on war at the expense of peace.”
In his sermon, Seymour traced the principal objection to the proposal for a “guaranteed annual income” to America’s obsession with the “so-called ‘Protestant Ethic’ which takes a very positive view of work and has a strong bias against idleness.” Early Puritans operating within the Reformed tradition believed that one’s economic success could be a sign that one was among God’s chosen elect. Virtues of hard work and frugality were linked to Christian faith. In his study of these ideas in the early 20th century, German sociologist and political economist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant Ethic.”
Seymour chided this work ethic as forcing Americans to choose between the false binary of the “sacredness of work and the sacredness of human life.” He declared, “It is not what we do that gives ultimate or intrinsic importance to our lives; it is who we are, and our Christian faith tells us that we and every [one] – whether [they] be rich or poor – is a child of God.”
Critics of the concept of a universal basic income had contended that it incentivizes laziness among ungrateful and undeserving people. In response to such criticisms, Seymour reminded his congregation that Christians were not in a position to be “deciding which people are deserving.” The Good News is Jesus presents Grace to us all, undeserving though we may be, and while negative incentives like the fear of hell are present in the Christian tradition, it is the positive incentive of the love of God that “moves us.”
Both King and Seymour built on the legacy of Baptist minister and Social Gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch who brought attention to income inequality in the early 20th century. Such inequality, he reasoned, not only presented a challenge for American Democracy but also for Baptist congregations that practice a democratic polity. Whereas every member may have one vote in a church business meeting, members with the deepest pockets often exert more influence over congregational decisions. American elections operate similarly. Proposals for a universal basic income extend from such reasoning as a means of granting lower-income members a more equitable stake in a church’s decision-making process as well as the country’s.
“Seymour reminded his congregation that Christians were not in a position to be deciding which people are deserving.’”
Today, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, income equality remains an important issue, especially for Baptist and other Christian traditions that practice a democratic polity.
For many Americans, Yang’s proposal to give $1,000 a month to every individual over age 18 seems farfetched. New York Times columnist Charles Blow has argued that while Yang will not get the nomination, he has demonstrated a keen ability to explain complex ideas to the American public. I am not writing to endorse Yang’s candidacy or, for that matter, his signature policy proposal of a universal basic income. But his daring idea should force us to stop and think. Perhaps the principle of a universal basic income is not as farfetched as it may seem. Whether from voices from the past, our congregational polity or the biblical text (especially the teachings of Jesus), the Baptist tradition can provide resources for thinking deeply about such a proposal.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus didn’t call us to a life of considering the impracticality of living abundantly; rather, he claimed that abundant life is precisely what he came to bring. The thieves and robbers that Jesus described as coming only to kill and destroy sound a lot like those who suggest America’s abundance can only be enjoyed by a privileged few.
As Seymour concluded his sermon, he encouraged his congregation to “be grateful that it is possible to even consider translating such a proposal into economic reality.” He warned, however, that “rapidly increasing abundance will surely become a curse to us if we fail to find ways to use it so as to undergird the social dignity of every [one] and affirm [their] worth.”
I fear, 51 years later, that we are seeing the curses of unfettered economic growth without regard to the value of human life. With compassionate hearts and resolute actions, may we rise to the occasion of prioritizing people over practicality and profits.