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06.30.

2017

Cleaning Toilets for Jesus


GRETCHEN PURSER / BRIAN HENNIGAN

Inside the program teaching submission to capitalism as a divine duty.

T
rump’s “taxpayer first” budget proposal, released last month, not only
guts social welfare spending, but expands work requirements for low-
income recipients of aid. “If you are on food stamps and you are able
bodied, we need you to go to work,” declared budget director Mick
Mulvaney.

Making low-income Americans work to qualify for aid has long been couched in the language of
personal responsibility, dignity, and civic and moral duty. Mulvaney’s comments during the
White House briefing were no exception: “There is a dignity to work,” he declared. “And there’s
a necessity to work to help the country succeed.”

While work requirements are widely regarded as darlings of the conservative agenda, few
recognize the role that faith-based organizations have played in lending these policies
ideological and practical support. Geographer Jason Hackworth terms this phenomenon
“religious neoliberalism,” the “ideational fusion” between free-market ideologues and religious
conservatives. These two groups, Hackworth argues, are bound through a mutual “faith in the
market, faith in the individual, and faith in a small (or nonexistent) government.”

Arguably nowhere is this ideological fusion more prominent than in the faith-based — or,
rather, faith-saturated — job-readiness program called Jobs for Life (JFL). Founded in 1996 in
Raleigh, North Carolina, JFL is a global nonprofit organization premised on the belief that the
local church, given its capacity to mobilize the cant of volunteers, is the untapped and ideal
“solution” to the enduring social crises of poverty and unemployment.

Jobs for Life

T
T hrough the development of “gospel-centered relationships” with the jobless poor,
JFL aims to see “all people working and living for the glory of God.” An article in
The Christian Science Monitor, entitled “Today’s hot new career handbook? The
Bible,” lauds JFL as o ering “a bit of Jeremiah for the jitters, some Noah for uplift, and Joseph
for perspective.”

JFL has long been regarded as a model for religious engagement and faith-based activism in the
post-welfare era. In 1997, its cofounder was invited to the White House by President Clinton to
help plan and promote “welfare-to-work” policies. And in 2000, it became the basis for a Texas
lawsuit challenging the legality of using public funds for such an overtly sectarian organization.
Judges later dismissed the lawsuit, thereby legitimizing Bush’s later faith-based initiatives.

Twenty years since its founding, JFL has become a significant and firmly entrenched player in
the landscape of job-readiness programs. By 2015, its courses were o ered in over 347 cities
across forty states and seven countries to nearly six thousand individuals each year, mostly in
churches, community centers, homeless shelters, jails, and prisons.

JFL’s proliferation thus mirrors two broader trends: the increased reliance upon faith-based
organizations for service provision to the poor (as documented, for example, in Jason
Hackworth’s Faith-Based and Tanya Erzen’s God in Captivity) and the monomaniacal focus on
enhancing individuals’ “employability.”

On the one hand, JFL explicitly frames itself as an idealized alternative to “failed” government
programs. In its annual report, the CEO writes, “Today, government programs spend up to
$25,000 per person helping someone find a job. And these strategies do not address the
underlying emotional and spiritual problems that tear at the fabric of our society … By contrast,
we have seen churches and ministries o er a much di erent solution … and the good news is this
strategy costs under $250 per person.”

On the other hand, JFL promotes the priority and preoccupation of the post-welfare, neoliberal
state: enforcing work.

“Nothing attacks one’s dignity like a lack of work,” the organization declares. It explicitly
criticizes and distinguishes itself from traditional Christian charity, which it frames as focusing
on the provision of material goods like food, clothing, and housing. “Without employment,”
JFL asks, “how will those in need ever be able to sustainably provide for themselves and their
families?” JFL demands that we “flip the list” by prioritizing work. Anything less than a “work-
first” orientation is deemed feel-good myopia, even “toxic charity.”

We immersed ourselves in several rounds of an eight-week-long JFL course targeted to


homeless men, nearly all of whom were formerly incarcerated, navigating the unforgiving labor
market with a criminal history record. The course was taught by evangelical Christian religious
and business leaders and took place in the chapel of a homeless shelter in a mid-sized, Rust Belt
city with one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation.
As scholars who research and teach on issues of labor and poverty, we were warmly welcomed as
observers to and occasional participants in the class. Week after week, for two hours every
Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, we followed JFL’s curricular “journey,” participating in the
collective prayers, the fellowship, the discussions of biblical stories, and the repeated lessons
about “character,” job search strategies, and what constitutes appropriate workplace behavior.

JFL, we discovered, bolsters neoliberal demands for personal responsibility and market
submission by placing theological emphasis on work as God’s will and design. It thus
demonstrates the extraordinary utility of, and reliance upon, religion for the project of
enhancing employability, the “new spirit of capitalism.”

"Hearts and Attitudes"

A t the end of the workbook’s second chapter, students are asked to complete
several fill-in-the-blank statements under the worksheet title: “Is work a blessing
or a curse?”

Why should I want to work?

It is what I am _______ to do.

It is a way to _______ what it means to be made in God’s image.

It is a way to _______ God for the gift he has given men.

It is a way to use the gifts and talents I have been given to:

Serve _______.

_______ for me and my family.

Give to _______.

By instilling within participants this biblical perspective on work, JFL is in the business of
cultivating disciples who devote themselves to labor and the Lord. For JFL as much as Ben
Carson, then, unemployment and poverty is “a state of mind” easily overcome by shifting one’s
outlook.

Take, for example, this lesson, taught by Walter, a captivating evangelical preacher and one of
the rotating crew of volunteer instructors:

Like the Bible says, ‘work as unto the Lord.’ You know, when my [boss] wants me to do
somethin’ — I’m not talkin’ ‘bout immoral, I’m just talkin’ ‘bout somethin’ I don’t
wanna do. I don’t really want to clean the toilet. Well, I’m not cleanin’ the toilet for the
boss. According to scripture, I need to work as unto the Lord. I’m cleanin’ it for Jesus.

Here, Walter draws upon a biblical passage to a ect an attitudinal shift, reframing submission
to the employer (“cleanin’ the toilet for the boss”) as an exalted submission to the Lord
(“cleaning it for Jesus”).

As another instructor put it, JFL’s purpose is to e ect an internal transformation of “heart[s]
and attitude[s],” so that participants move away from thinking of employment under capitalism
as “adversarial,” and embrace it as the will of, and gift from, God.

Throughout the course, instructors draw upon the overwrought metaphor of “roadblocks” to
refer to the things that diminish our employability and get in the way of our life journey. In one
class, for instance, we are told that roadblocks are caused by our own false beliefs.

“What are some false beliefs that can cause roadblocks?” the instructor, Barry, asks.

Edwin, a young, soft-spoken participant, o ers the resolute, but vague response: “Don’t trust
‘em.”

“Yeah, don’t trust anybody, right?” Barry affirms, before going on to illustrate how this belief
plays out in the workplace. “You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs, and everybody’s screwed me. I
don’t trust ‘em. They tell me they’re gonna pay me but they don’t pay me. I don’t trust anybody.
That, that all employers are —.” He stops mid-sentence and then concludes, “Don’t work for
the man, right? All they wanna do is use me and abuse me!”

“And get rid’a me!” Edwin adds.

“And get rid’a me,” Barry affirms. “But it’s a false belief.” Impressing upon his pupils the basic
benevolence of employers, Barry adds, “Everybody’s not like that. That [false belief] could take
ya out, right?” He skips ahead in his slides until he lands on one bearing scripture from John
1:10-11, below which is written, in all caps, “GOOD NEWS! WE ARE NOT ALONE.”

JFL endeavors to transform participants’ defensive individualism into willful dependence upon,
and submission to, the Lord. It’s curriculum draws from biblical parables to produce
“employable” — i.e. faithfully submissive, compliant, and grateful — subjects for low-wage,
precarious work.

Attitude of Gratitude

A n instructor with slicked-back gray hair named Steve paces at the front of the
chapel, reviewing the story of Joseph. Reading from the JFL student workbook,
Steve explains how Joseph was taken as a slave for Potiphar, a wealthy Egyptian
official.
Anticipating the workbook’s subsequent question — “How did Joseph approach his work even
as a slave?” — Steve explains that even as a slave Joseph worked hard and “succeeded in
everything he did,” ultimately gaining the respect of his master who later “promoted” him to
“manager” of his household a airs. Unfortunately, Joseph, whom the workbook describes as a
“handsome and well-built young man,” became an object of lust for Potiphar’s wife. But, as a
man of character, he repeatedly refused her advances.

“Everything was going well for him,” Fred, an exceptionally cheerful participant, o ers, “until
Potiphar’s wife got him in trouble!”

“Those women!” Steve agrees, and laughter fills the room. Spurned, Steve continues, the wife
accused Joseph of attempted rape, which, despite his protests of innocence, quickly landed him
in prison. But the Lord remained with Joseph, Steve stresses, making him “a favorite with the
prison warden,” who eventually put Joseph in charge of the jail and later released him. (Joseph
finally became one of the Pharaoh’s wealthy Viziers.)

“Everything he touched went well,” Steve concludes. “And that’s the key part for me. It’s that
God is in control. Terrible things happened to Joseph. He faced some terrible circumstances,
but God was still in control. Sometimes we make choices and things happen to us at no fault of
our own. But it doesn’t matter because God is still in control, and God took favor on Joseph.”

The Parable’s lesson, Steve clarifies to the class, is that Joseph succeeded in life (and the ancient
Egyptian job market) because he was able to overcome his “roadblocks” — including slavery
and prison — through three commitments listed on page forty-two of the student workbook:

Total allegiance to God first

Respect for authority

Performed with unquestionable work ethic

Several sessions later, Jonathan, an instructor who regularly draws inspiration from his job as a
director of human resources, reminds the class about Joseph’s story while in the process of
challenging the “victim mentality” (“woe is me”) of the poor and unemployed. “You won’t
accomplish anything like what Joseph accomplished if that’s your attitude,” he admonishes the
men in the room.

He goes on to describe lazy employees “stealing time” or even stealing office supplies because
they’re earning minimum wage and think they should be paid better. Tired of the anger and
ungratefulness fueling such petty workplace resistance, Jonathan urges the men to adopt an
“attitude of gratitude.”

“Joseph didn’t let anything bother him,” Jonathan continues. “He did what he was supposed to
do and whatever his master or his boss told him to do. And then he would get thrown back down
again and instead of feeling, ‘Well, I’m entitled . . .’ It all comes back to character!” he exclaims.
A Fair Employer

B randon, a young and remarkably tanned owner of a local human resources


consulting firm, comes directly from the office when he volunteers to teach Jobs for
Life. He’s always wearing a suit and tie because, as he repeatedly tells the class,
“you never know when a networking opportunity might arise.”

Turning to chapter seven in the workbook, we review the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, “a
story,” Brandon reads, “of how a fair employer treats his employees.” Drawn from Matthew
20:1-15, the parable describes a vineyard owner hiring one group of laborers in the morning and
another group at five o’clock. “That evening,” a student reads aloud, “he [the landowner] told
the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first.” The
story continues:

When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those
hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too,
were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner,
“Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you
paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.” He answered one of them, “Friend, I
haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your
money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for
me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to
others?

Dustin, one of the students whom the facilitators saw as someone who “gave o a vibe of being a
little difficult, bein’ a little hard,” objects: “This is the one story I don’t like in the Bible.” He
shakes his head, looking down, pondering the story’s implications. Even though he knows he is
supposed to think otherwise, he sees injustice.

“Why is this unfair?” Brandon inquires, eager to correct his pupil with respect to one of the
stated take-away points from this exercise: to “understand issues from the employer’s
viewpoint before you comment or judge.” Dustin points out that some workers were e ectively
paid more than the others.

“Why would you allow how someone else is paid to rob your joy, after you agreed to your wage?”
Brandon demands. He then admonishes Dustin not to “let external factors come in and destroy
what you have with your employer.”

But Dustin presses: “If they pay you less, do they value you as an employee? I’d say no.”

Rather than directly address Dustin’s concern, Brandon replies that there is no reason to get a
job if you’re just going to get upset and lose it. Besides, he continues, in the real world “you
won’t know why people are paid di erent wages.” In a dogged e ort to instill within his
students an “attitude of gratitude” as well as a faithful submission, he instructs: “We have to be
happy with what we have and the path we’re on and work with the things that the Lord’s given
us.” We can’t, in other words, get occupied with the things over which we have no control. The
wages of others, he preaches, “have nothing to do with [your] job and [your] responsibilities.”

Here, a metaphorical parable about equality before God gets transformed into a literal God-
given mandate against workers questioning their place in the stratified labor market of modern
capitalism.

Cultivating Disciples

O n the final day of class, standing in front of the Chapel, Barry announces to the
soon-to-be graduates that he wants to share what is “really on his heart.” He asks
the students to turn to the conclusion of the workbook and he reads aloud: “Trust
in the Lord with all your heart . . . seek His will in all you do and He will show you the way.”

For emphasis, he reads it twice more. Then, he preaches: “You were created by God and work
was created by God. Trust in Him for He will show you the way.” In a kind of goodbye message,
Barry continues, “Our ultimate hope and prayer is that you make this commitment to the Lord
and that you lean on Him and put Him first.”

Barry raises his right hand, holding the JFL workbook above his head. “You could memorize all
these lessons and learn them so well that you could teach this class.” He then dramatically
throws the workbook down on to the table before him and raises his left hand, in which he
pretends to hold another book. “Or you could live by the other book [The Bible].”

Submissive and exploitable workers are not just found, but have to be made. Max Weber
documented long ago the critical, though inadvertent, role that religion played in the origins of
modern capitalism. But for Weber, “victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical
foundations, needs its support no longer.” Over time, work and acquisition became “stripped of
religious and ethical meaning.”

Combining proselytization with the social intervention of “job-readiness” training, programs


like JFL reveal the ongoing power of, and reliance upon, religion as ideological arsenal for
bolstering the neoliberal project of enforcing market- and work-compliance. Emphasizing the
sacred character of and Christian imperative to work, JFL recasts the employable worker as the
faithful disciple and submission to the boss as submission to the Lord.

JFL not only preaches faith in the market, but also faith through the market. Increasingly reified
and empowered by neoliberal ideology and policy, “the market” becomes the terrestrial testing
ground for achieving and proving one’s faith and supernatural worthiness. For those unworthy,
it preaches self-contempt and abasement, casting them out into the hell of indefinite
joblessness. Such framing rectifies the fundamental rhetorical contradiction in neoliberal
ideology: its urging of individual freedom and entrepreneurial behavior while demanding total
submission to the abstract, alien decrees of the market. Through the religious neoliberalism of
JFL, the deference to capital becomes the first step toward the entrepreneurial achievement of
individual salvation.

The religious right, then, is obsessed with more than just oppressing sexual and religious
minorities. It has been and remains dedicated to disciplining the poor and working class.
Despite his apparent exceptionalism, Trump’s proposal to further gut welfare in the name of
promoting “dignity through work” merely continues the older, bipartisan project of stitching a
sentimental veil atop an increasingly soul-sucking labor market.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gretchen Purser is an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Brian Hennigan is a PhD candidate in geography at Syracuse University.

Catalyst, a new journal published by Jacobin is out now.